Prison life through the lens of digitalisation

Jana Robberechts

Research output: ThesisPhD Thesis

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Digital technologies have increasingly become a key element in the modern experience of imprisonment. These technologies mainly aim to improve the internal organisation of the prison and can be used by both prisoners and staff. Although digitalisation has increasingly gained international academic attention, prison research on the use of digital technologies in other jurisdictions indicates that its access is usually selective and conditional. Less is known, however, about equal access to digital technologies that is not linked with prisoners’ behaviour, which is the case in Belgium. Belgium took the lead in 2014 with the introduction of the digital platform PrisonCloud, which gives prisoners in-cell and equal access to various services in three prisons. This doctoral thesis occupies an intellectual space that suggests a more nuanced understanding of the impact of digital technologies on prison life, rather than a focus on technology per se, and offers a more complete appreciation of the impact of digitalisation. As such, it is a study of prison life through the lens of digitalisation which employs a mixed methods approach that combines rich empirical data within a framework derived from penological sensitising concepts.

The thesis examines the intended and unintended consequences that arose from the use of PrisonCloud by those members of the prison community who had access to it, which included prisoners and prison staff. Of particular interest was to illustrate the way their respective use of the digital platform affected the relationships between prisoners and staff. The data was gathered by observations in one prison equipped with PrisonCloud over a cumulative period of time that in total accounted for 6 months. In addition, interviews were conducted with 36 prisoners, 12 custodial staff and 15 non-uniformed staff. These data were supplemented with a document analysis and structured diaries completed by 13 prisoners. To structure the analysis of the empirical data, were employed Crewe’s theoretical concepts of depth, weight and tightness which provided a useful toolkit in revealing the nuance of prison experiences.

Focusing on a range of actors, enables the myriad ways that digitalisation impacts upon prison life to be revealed. In particular, how prisoners and staff experienced the digital prison context and how it affected their physical and virtual interactions. It is argued that the digital platform impacted social relations, prison routines and cognizance of the lived experiences of space.

The study concludes that relocating prisoners’ access to activities and services through digital technologies has a tangible impact upon prisoners' autonomy. They were afforded a greater say over their unstructured time and interacted fast(er), and more directly, with previously hard to reach prison services. However, the increased autonomy and power of prisoners was observed to be accompanied by expectations, expressed in terms of responsibilisation.

Digitalisation allowed more efficient work processes and digital communication was considerably more direct between prisoners and prison services. In conjunction with the increased multi-functionality of the prison cell as a consequence of PrisonCloud, the workload of custodial staff was reduced. Efficiency was also apparent in other prison services where the platform simplified some procedures.

This thesis confirms many findings by the extant prison scholarship in Belgium and beyond. However, it does provide new and important insights into how digitalisation plays a role in the structure and organisation of prison life. The pace of technological development places certain constraints that are unavoidable. First, this research reflects events in a specific time period, although the methodology allows for findings to be revisited and revaluated. Secondly, it was decided not to evaluate the platform,its technical problems or user-friendliness, as these could potentially change and adapt quickly. Instead, I have been far more attentive to a holistic approach for the study of relationships in prison, which through the qualitative analysis of PrisonCloud, has given a unique insight into the organisational prison structure and the experiences of actors who live and work there.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Beyens, Kristel, Supervisor
Award date15 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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