Technology and automation can significantly ease the burden on South Africa’s stretched prison staff, says the author. File photo.
Technology and automation can significantly ease the burden on South Africa’s stretched prison staff, says the author. File photo.

“Smart” prisons of the future

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Oct 5, 2021

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SOUTH Africa has a serious overcrowding problem in its 243 correctional centres. Although overcrowding is, on average, 25 percent, some prisons are running at an astonishing 220 percent capacity.

Over the past few years, the number of prisoners in South Africa has grown steadily and dramatically.

Until last year, the main driver was the unsentenced prisoner population. After last year, the major driver can be attributed to prisoners serving increasingly longer sentences that are partly due to the introduction of the so-called minimum sentences legislation. Thus, despite the addition of almost 3 000 beds in the past five years and special parole for 7 000 inmates last year, about 30 000 inmates are without a bed.

Smart technology

A possible solution to deal with the immense problem of managing the overcrowded prisons is to turn to the use of smart technology. The past few years have seen rapid advances in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions in prisons globally.

China and Hong Kong are using AI to continuously monitor inmates. Hong Kong’s first smart prison, Tai Tam Gap, opened this year and uses Fitbit-like tracking wristbands to monitor prisoners’ locations and activities, including their heart rates.

In addition to biometric technology, some prisons, such as Pik Uk, are also using facial recognition and video analytic monitoring to detect changes in prisoner behaviour (for example, self-harm or violence against others) and send alerts to prison staff. Drones and robotic guards are further used to regularly patrol the prison.

China implemented a smart video and sensor surveillance system in Yancheng Prison to monitor high-profile prisoners in real-time. The AI system tracks the movements and behaviour of inmates and generates a comprehensive report at the end of each day. Suspicious behaviour is immediately flagged by the system, and prison officers are notified. The system makes prison breaks almost impossible and prevents unethical behaviour by prison officers.

Analysing phone calls

In US prisons, AI is extensively used to monitor phone calls by inmates, in order to prevent violent crime and suicide. The Verus system automatically keeps tabs on what the prisoners are saying, in addition to the physical call monitoring by prison staff. The technology automatically transcribes the phone calls of the prisoners, analyses their patterns of communication, flags certain pre-identified words or phrases, and even notices their tone of voice.

A focus on rehabilitation

Finland implemented a smart prison project in March this year in the Hämeenlinna women’s prison and introduced digital services for the rehabilitation, education, and reintegration of prisoners. The system is supported by AI and includes the installation of a terminal in each cell. Monitored internet access is limited to family members, certain NGOs, educational material, and other websites that support rehabilitation. Reading material in the form of e-books and e-journals are also available, as well as online therapy.

Virtual prisons

Although prisons have been the dominant symbol of punishment over hundreds of years, physical jails are often overcrowded and there are never enough to accommodate the growing number of criminals. Most prison environments are also not very conducive to rehabilitation.

Louis Fourie

New electronic monitoring technology could, to some extent, help to replace brick and mortar prisons.

In the US, an AI-enhanced GPS location tracking device, almost like an ankle bracelet, is being used. The device is preloaded with information on the risks assigned to various spaces to prevent the prisoner from entering risky spaces. The sophisticated system cross-references the location with crime reports and lists of offenders, and automatically intervenes to encourage the prisoner to leave a specific location.

Virtual prisons could be used in the case of minor offences. It would allow prisoners to live in a less violent environment and one that is much better for rehabilitation.

Easing the burden

The technologies and automation can significantly ease the burden on South Africa’s stretched prison staff. In England and Wales, it was found that self-service kiosks and in-cell telephony saved the equivalent time of two prison officers working a full week.

In Australia, a prison is using an autonomous vehicle to patrol the perimeter, thus replacing two prison officers. The vehicle is equipped with hi-definition cameras, night vision, a collision-avoidance system, incident warning, a two-way intercom and is also integrated with drones.

Numerous benefits

Without doubt, the digital transformation of South African prisons could bring numerous benefits to an overstretched system. AI surveillance systems, video analytics, machine learning, and voice analysis could provide correctional services with significant insights into the mindset and behaviour of inmates.

Although AI will not be able to fully replace the human touch that is so important to successful rehabilitation, it will free human staff to focus on supporting incarcerated individuals.

The digital transformation of our prisons could improve the rehabilitation opportunities in our overcrowded prisons and enable prison officers to focus on the rehabilitation of the prisoners. Perhaps, one day, we will have “smart” prisons in South Africa.

Professor Louis CH Fourie is a technology strategist.


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