Forget prisons, the future of punishment will be virtual

Prisons have become the dominant symbol of punishment in modern democracies. But they are expensive and fundamentally don’t work. In 2020 we will be exploring ways to use technology to create virtual prisons that could eventually replace the bricks-and-mortar type. The opportunities, both for prisoners and the state, are huge. But so are the risks.

As policymakers and inmates know, prisons are among the most wasteful institutions in society. They waste money: in the UK, it costs around £80,000 per year to house a prisoner, taking into account the vast capital costs involved in building and maintaining prisons.

They waste potential: living in confinement with constant reminders of past and current failure and alongside the most antisocial in society is not the ideal context for developing life skills.

And they waste opportunities to reduce crime, sucking up funding that could be invested in smart policing and early support for those from backgrounds of trauma, abuse and neglect – all of which are much more cost-effective.

Electronic monitoring, in the form of tags, already makes use of location tracking, GPS and radio-frequency technologies. These will be augmented by sophisticated systems that will allow cross-referencing of the location of those under supervision with crime reports. . This will create huge scope to enforce additional restrictions on where they go, who they associate with and what they do.

There is also opportunity to make use of virtual reality for those under house arrest or curfew to support remote learning (think plumbing courses in VR headsets), or to recreate the privations of prison by requiring a certain number of hours in VR headset solitude.

Virtual prisons will cost much less than prisons do – GPS tags are reported to cost £9 per day – and that would certainly feel like a tough punishment, with a high level of restriction felt all the more acutely when living alongside those freely going about their business.

But the effect of a virtual prison on preventing re-offending is unknown. In theory, the ability of technologies to allow those doing time to retain pro-social ties – for example, with work and family – should reduce offending. But there is still a risk that those under such restrictions could offend against members of the public.

If we are to introduce virtual prisons we will need to answer some key questions. First, who should be sent to them? If we see virtual prisons simply as a tougher alternative to fines and community sentences, then we will just push more people into our justice system, increasing costs. Permitting the most dangerous, however, could create other risks. Virtual prisons might make it nearly certain that any further offending will be detected and punished, but those who don’t care about consequences will still be able to find ways of committing crime.

Second, what about breaches of virtual-prison rules? A sensible regime would allow for small infractions, such as a prisoner leaving their permitted zone in the case of a medical emergency. But larger infractions may lead to being incarcerated in a bricks-and-mortar prison.

Third, what should the precise regime look like? As in the physical prison system, there are choices about how much to focus on containment and immediate offending, at the expense of enabling personal change, which delivers longer-term results.

In 2020, virtual prisons will continue to be constructed as we expand the role of technology in supervising offenders. But we have no idea if we will be sleepwalking into a more humane and effective world, or a dystopian, more expensive one.

Tom Gash is honorary senior lecturer at University College London’s Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science

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