Reform Scotland

Digital skills for prisoners – Tom Halpin

I was recently approached to discuss how the use of social media can be a powerful tool to influence public opinion, promote good practice and bring attention to positive news stories. This approach is generally accepted as a positive statement for good without much challenge. But what if the public opinion we seek to influence is aimed at supporting prisoners with digital skills?

Modern Scotland is a digital nation. We readily acknowledge how life is enhanced for those with the access, motivation and skills to get things done, yet the image of a prisoner with digital skills is restricted to being a bad thing. A recent television documentary following a long-term prisoner on remand was notable for his comment that he couldn’t get over all the people walking with a phone thing in their hand that they looked at all the time. All of you, take out your smart phone now; look at the apps and computing power you have and expect to have available at your fingertip. In a prison, this is a thing to be smuggled as contraband; hidden with severe penalties for being caught in possession never mind using it.

On the outside we demand these same people accept their personal responsibility to reintegrate as contributing citizens, yet we increasingly need digital skills to access medical, welfare, financial, housing, educational and employment services to name just a few. We have all moved on too. Fewer of us are now using email with most using social media apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The arena is constantly evolving with new skills to be learned. It is only rational to recognise that these people inside our prisons are still people. Can we really afford as a caring inclusive society to exclude them totally, even if we may sometimes think “yes”, when faced by the very unpleasant and damaging things they might have done? The truth is we cannot totally exclude all others and be a civilised society. The vast majority of our prisoners have not done something so evil that we all agree they must be excluded for ever; and most will return to our communities.

Sacro has embarked on a project to improve the digital skills of many of those who use our services. Many of our front line staff have been – or are in the process of being – trained to provide support and guidance to service users on using digital services. The reality is these skills are vital to moving on and successfully reintegrating with society.

Of course there are real issues around prison security that need addressed before we can enable digital inclusion for prisoners – including controlled access to social media. However, surely this can be overcome. If we can send astronauts into space with the capability to communicate back privately to their families, it cannot be beyond the tech giants to design a solution that allows controlled and supervised social communications for prisoners with their families. We know these family bonds are essential for successful reintegration so it is in all our interests to facilitate this. Remember, most people held in prison on remand do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, so it is not all about societies’ reasonable response to the risk they pose to us all.

This digital exclusion equally applies to those impoverished in our communities, many of whom rely on foodbanks because they can barely afford food. What sort of data bundle can they afford in a high street phone shop? We are now realising that there is an increasing issue related to the emergence of a digital underclass; referred to by Mervyn and Allen in their work (2012:1126). They highlight the irony of the situation whereby undeserved people require a greater degree of public information and services than the more affluent sections of society but are unable to access it reliably’.

We must remember that many prisoners in Scotland are also doing the right things; engaging positively with their families and other disadvantaged groups and contributing positively as they work purposefully on their own journey to successful reintegration. As charities, we need to communicate this more effectively and creatively. While the tech giants work out how to develop this technology further, surely we as charities can work with them on how to use digital communication and social media in a way that enables prisoners to gain those essential skills we all take for granted at our fingertip on the outside.


Tom Halpin is the Chief Executive of SACRO