The future of punishment: prisons without bars and hell on earth

16 Nov 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 17 Nov 2017

Will prisons be part of the past Picture: Andrea Cappiello, Unsplash

Technological change poses enormous challenges for the future punishment and rehabilitation of offenders. 

This is an area which provides both the prospect of permanently reforming a prison system which is based on 18th Century ideas, and also introduces ethical problems, some of which are profoundly disturbing. Innovation could massively enhance the work of the probation services and other organisations involved in rehabilitation, or it could result in their demise.

This is also a sphere where the surveillance industry has well developed ideas to exploit The Internet of Things, and the response from civic society has been all but non-existent, with important organisations seemingly oblivious to what is coming down the track or else fondly imagining they can wish it out of existence.  

There is nothing new about tagging.  It has been around for decades now. Every year in Northern Ireland around 1,200 offenders are tagged.

Here it is largely used as a means of imposing bail curfews. A radio signal is sent from the device to a control centred managed, in Northern Ireland’s case by G4S which can then monitor any breaches.

Elsewhere in the world radio devices are already being eclipsed by GPS tracking systems, of the type commonly used in smart watches and fitness devices. This allows the actual movement of offenders to be tracked in real time.

A vast and rapidly growing industry is working on developing these devices, which insiders call EM. And it not just movements that can be monitored.

Latest research is concentrating on the integration of biometric sensors which will be able to monitor heart rate, body movements, body temperature and the ingestion of drugs and alcohol. Emerging technology allows authorities to determine where people are, what they are drinking, whether they are taking drugs, how healthy they are and what they are doing in real time.

This extraordinary level of surveillance was first predicted by science fiction writers in the 1960s and has been much debated since – either as a panacea to reduce prison sentencing and replace it by the surveillance of offenders, or a dystopian nightmare of state control.The science certainly has a sinister past: early prototypes emerged in the USA in the 1960s at a time when there was significant secret military investment in academic research on techniques of social control.

In 1966 a researcher named DM Martin told a US congressional hearing about work being developed to control the mentally ill by embedding “transmitters” in their flesh:

“We may reach the point where it will be permissible to allow some emotionally ill people the freedom of the streets, providing they are effectively ‘defused’ through chemical agents. The task, then for the computer linked sensors would be to telemeter, not their emotional states, but simply the sufficiency of the  concentration of the chemical agent  to ensure an acceptable emotional  state. I am not prepared to speculate whether such a situation would increase or decrease the personal freedom of the emotionally ill person."

Yet today the technology is being rolled out at a time of smart phones and watches when tracking is becoming the norm, and digital connectedness is increasingly seen as a right and data monitoring for all sorts of purposes commonplace. If offenders are under surveillance, so too is everyone else. 

The UK’s leading academic authority on EM is Professor Mike Nellis of Strathclyde University, he calls the technology “coercive connectiveness” and sees it very much in the context of the 4th Industrial Revolution. 

He is becoming increasingly concerned at the collective failure of professionals involved in the rehabilitation of offenders to engage in the debate about how this technology should be used. 

He puts it like this: “It is vital however that at this point in debate on the future of EM in England and Wales that probation interests and penal reform bodies abandon their traditional aloofness towards EM. They must recognise that it is merely an affordance, a customised coercive form, of the ubiquitous digital connectedness that characterises our age, and engage more actively in shaping the wise use of monitoring technology. Failure to do so will guarantee the continuing – but unwarranted - domination of right wing, neo-liberal narratives about the purpose, direction and scale of EM use.”

Professor Nellis has good cause to express this concern after a disastrous experiment carried out by the former Westminster Justice Minister Chris Grayling. He launched an initiative called New World in 2012 which envisaged a system which would monitor up to 75,000 people every day through GPS devices.

However five years on and £60 million later the initiative is stalled – and not a single person has had a GPS device fitted. The Public Accounts committee investigated this fiasco earlier this week.

What makes the experiment in England and Wales stand out is threefold. Firstly it was prompted by the neo-liberal think tank Policy Exchange; secondly it coincided with the effective de-professionalisation and privatisation of the probation service, suggesting its architects saw it as an alternative rather than a supplement to human rehabilitation; and thirdly it was not accompanied by any aspiration to reducing the numbers in prison.

Leaving the debate to those looking for a profit, technological innovators and right wing politicians whose first instinct is often punitive rather than rehabilitative is unlikely to produce benign results. Yet the technology can be used for good. And empathy and emotional intelligence, both vital components in any rehabilitation programme are purely human qualities that cannot be replicated by automated devices monitored by call centre staff.

On any sensible view this is an opportunity to grow rehabilitation work, rather than downgrade it.

In that context it seems extraordinary, that, to date, penal reform organisations have been either resisting or ignoring the introduction of technology. They should, surely be attempting to shape it, to own and control it and to ensure that its introduction produces benign results?

The collapse of New World provides the opportunity to join that debate. This is just as important in Northern Ireland which currently has no plans to introduce GPS tracking, but surely will in the future.

But of course the same techniques can and are also be used to increase punishment for offenders, those on bail and asylum seekers. 

It is high time that this debate was properly joined. There are already so many popular misconceptions about criminology and the justice system that this argument could so easily be lost before it even begins.

Professor Nellis argues that probation services and those campaigning for penal reform have “signally failed to grasp the importance of reconfiguring EM as a safe, legitimate application of digital technology in the struggle to create safe communities and reduce prison numbers.”

The technology companies behind the changes are powerful, they are effective lobbyists and they are spending millions in research. They do have the potential to help build a better, more efficient system. They also have the potential to facilitate an Orwellian new form of justice that has no human face. If technology is to benefit us it has to be guided by practitioners with the public good in mind, rather than big corporates whose primary purpose is profit.

The dystopian nightmare does not end there. Technological innovation could also lead to the development and introduction of new forms of punishments some of which are so extreme that the concept of hell will no longer be an abstract study for theologians.  

Oxford University philosopher Rebecca Roache is currently conducting a study of the future of punishment. This was triggered by her revulsion at the case of Daniel Pelka, a four-year old who was starved and beaten to death by his mother Magadena Luczak and her partner Mariusz Krezolek in 2012.   She postulated that many people would consider conventional life sentences inadequate in the face of such a crime, especially given that prisoners are treated humanely and Daniel Pelka was not. This led her to write a piece in the journal Practical Ethics about how punishments might be enhanced by technology.

Some of the ideas that she explored included using life extension technologies (an emerging technology to extend human life) in order to give courts the powers to impose sentences longer than a criminal’s natural life, and to keep them alive to endure it. A more cost-effective alternative she considered was the development of drugs that would make time to appear to pass more slowly so that a ten year sentence might feel like an eternity. Her piece was picked up by the national press and Roache felt moved to qualify her writing by stating she was merely provoking a debate about the ethics of what was possible rather than actually recommending such “enhanced” punishments. In a further academic article she writes: "It is important to debate these questions before punishment is technologically enhanced. But, for those who take retributivist punishment seriously, technology offers potentially attractive ways to improve justice."

It is hard to get into the mindset of people who would find what she describes in any sense "attractive". But there will surely be advocates of enhanced punishment out there. And they will need to be challenged. 

Ironically, perhaps, both Luczak and Krezolek died after short periods in custody: Luzcak by suicide, Krezolek through natural causes.  

Whether the debate about the future of penology coalesces around effective ways to make society safer or devising ingenious new ways of inflicting torture, and what ultimately happens will depend upon who it is who ends up leading and driving the debate. Most of us would prefer that to be professionals who currently work with offenders rather than scientists keen to try out new ideas, big business who want to boost profits, retributionists and the ideological right.

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