Prisoners allowed access to adult films and internet

By Siobhann Tighe
Today programme

image copyrightBeveren Prison
image captionAntwerp's Beveren Prison is only two years old

A world-first system called PrisonCloud has been introduced in a prison in Antwerp, allowing prisoners to access the internet, make calls and download films from the privacy of their own cell. But how effective is it?

"I'm here for taking someone's life," says Ivan in a very soft voice. "I'm not proud of it."

His crime has led to a 20-year sentence. He's in Beveren Prison, which is a short car-ride from Antwerp, and from his cell he can do what other prisoners in other parts of the world cannot.

He can access the internet, or at least certain websites thought to be appropriate, and he can download whatever films he wants, including adult movies.

That's because Beveren Prison, which is just two years old, has a system called PrisonCloud.

This system is a world-first and is a radical move. So much so it has caught the eye of criminal justice experts across the world, keen to know whether the benefits will outweigh the risks.

media captionA world-first system called PrisonCloud has been introduced into a prison in Antwerp

It allows prisoners to access leisure and education opportunities in the privacy of their own cell, as well as making the prison run more efficiently.

Ivan's cell, like all of them in Beveren, has a TV monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, a headset and a special piece of hardware that is connected to a server.

Every inmate has a USB stick, a username and password. They can access the internet, but only certain sites. Facebook is not allowed, for example.

They can also make calls from their cell rather than go onto the landing to use the phone, they can download films and music, and they can play computer games. They can order extra items from the canteen, ask for library books, officially communicate with prison staff and see their court records.

Hotel or prison?

Wim Adriaenssen, deputy director of the prison, has no regrets about the system despite objections from Belgian society which compared it to a hotel.

He explained: "Inmates can go to a website where they can see what jobs are offered and they can say to themselves, 'When I go out, I can work in construction or whatever.'

"If they have a legal problem, they can get help from PrisonCloud and they can see the books they want to read. It's a connection with the outside world. PrisonCloud has more positive sides than downsides."

image copyrightebo-enterprises
image captionPrisoners can rent movies

Ivan says that it makes the prison run more smoothly and it means that bits of paper with orders or requests on don't get lost. It also gives him something to do.

"We can play very, very simple games like Tetris and the old school stuff," he says. "We can rent two types of movies. The normal movies cost about €3 and the other movies are €6 or €7."

And when he says "other" movies he means porn, one of the most contentious issues around PrisonCloud.

The darker side

Mr Adriaenssen is aware some people would be angry and offended about that but still believes it is the correct thing to do.

"People will be shocked but watching porn in prison, especially for young people who are incarcerated, it's a kind of an ersatz for something else. It's also in our interest to keep them in humane conditions and that means providing for certain things."

And what about sex offenders? Can they watch adult films too?

"This is going to sound direct but if an inmate is here for sexually abusing children," Mr Adrianessen says, "we're not going to say that he can't watch children's programmes on the TV. If you say, 'You're a murderer so you can't watch telly anymore because it's too violent for you,' that's short-sighted.

"These people are living in the same society as we do. We watch murder every day on our television. I don't approve of murder but I watch it.

"Society changes, prison changes."

image copyrightebo-enterprises
image captionSecurity and the risk of offending victims are reasons technology in prisons is contentious

Security checks

There are no plans to install PrisonCloud in the UK. Even though David Cameron says he wants a modern and efficient prison system fit for the 21st Century, technology is a thorny issue in the context of prisons for two very good reasons: security and the risk of offending victims.

Officially, mobiles and smartphones are not allowed in prison but according to Kevin Hogg, who works for the National Victims Association, prisoners get around the restrictions. This makes him nervous about technology in prisons in the future.

"There have been various cases throughout the UK, a lot within our organisation, where offenders have used the internet and have taunted the victims and their families," says Kevin. "Security checks aren't stringent enough even now."

Organisations like the Prisoner Education Trust and the Prison Reform Trust see a role for digital technology in prison, as long as systems are secure, and they anticipate some reference to it in a report into prison education by Dame Sally Coates due out shortly.

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