IN-CJ Podcast – The Psychology of Digital Tools in a Correctional Setting

IN-CJ Podcast – The Psychology of Digital Tools in a Correctional Setting

Digital transformation is gradually extending its reach into the criminal justice system. This development, and its implications for a humanely managed approach to criminal justice practices, is the focus of this episode of the “Just Psychology” series of podcasts, from the International Network on Criminal Justice. This episode featured a discussion between John Scott, the podcast’s chair, and two experienced psychologists: Pia Puolakka from Finland’s Prison and Probation Service, and Professor Joanna Clarke from the UK. Their conversation explored the use of digital tools in prisons and probation settings, examining both the benefits and challenges of this modern approach.

Pia Puolakka is a forensic psychologist and psychotherapist with the Finnish Prison and Probation Service since 2012. Her work includes managing Finland’s “smart prison” project, which integrates digital services into the daily lives of inmates. She leads a team focused on rehabilitative, digital, and security services.

Joanna Clarke has over three decades of experience in the UK’s prison system, focusing on the psychological wellbeing of prison staff and inmates. She began her career in the 1990s and has since moved from direct therapeutic work to academia and consultancy. Joanna founded Petros, a not-for-profit organisation that helps organisations create environments where people can thrive, particularly in high-stress sectors like criminal justice.

Pia Puolakka provided an overview of Finland’s approach to integrating digital tools within its prison system. Finland’s model emphasises the principle of normality, making prison conditions as like everyday life as possible. This includes offering digital services that inmates can use to access healthcare, educational resources, and social services. Such access aids rehabilitation and helps inmates maintain connections with the outside world, facilitating smoother reintegration after release.

One of Finland’s innovations is the implementation of “smart prisons.” These facilities provide each inmate with a personal cell device equipped with software for managing daily affairs and maintaining communication with external services. This supports the “import model,” bringing normal societal services into the prison environment, thus promoting equality and normality for inmates.

Jo Clarke highlighted the potential of digital tools in modernising rehabilitation efforts. She discussed the use of virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) in preparing inmates for life beyond prison. VR can simulate real-world scenarios, allowing prisoners to practice new skills in a controlled environment. This method helps inmates adjust their behaviour and reduces the anxiety associated with re-entering society.

Jo also noted the benefits of these technologies for staff. VR and AI can be used to train prison staff, providing them with realistic previews of challenging situations. This preparation enhances their resilience and overall wellbeing by equipping them with the skills needed to manage high-stress environments effectively.

Both speakers acknowledged the challenges of digitalising the criminal justice system. Pia pointed out the risk of reduced human interaction due to increased digital self-sufficiency among inmates. However, she suggested that this can be mitigated by using digital tools to complement, rather than replace, face-to-face interactions. This balanced approach ensures that the therapeutic relationship between staff and inmates remains intact.

Jo raised the issue of the psychological impact of digitalisation, stressing the need for careful implementation to avoid worsening mental health issues. She advocated for a trauma-informed approach, where digital tools support, rather than overwhelm, inmates. This approach includes providing digital literacy training, especially for older prisoners who may struggle with new technologies.

The discussion highlighted the importance of international collaboration in enhancing the use of digital tools in prisons. Pia and Jo’s insights revealed that while each country faces unique challenges, there are common solutions that can be adapted globally. By sharing best practices and continuously evaluating the impact of digitalisation, the criminal justice system can better support both inmates and staff.

In conclusion, integrating digital tools in prisons and probation settings represents a significant step forward in criminal justice reform. As Pia Puolakka and Jo Clarke highlighted, these innovations can transform rehabilitation processes and improve staff wellbeing. However, their successful implementation requires a balanced approach, ongoing evaluation, and international cooperation. Through thoughtful and informed application, digitalisation can play a crucial role in building a more effective and humane criminal justice system.

Rob Watson

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