Prisons, prisoners, and prison leavers

100% Digital Leeds has been working with HMP Wealstun and other partners to improve the digital support offer available in prison and to prison leavers upon their release. By supporting digital skills and confidence, and providing connectivity where needed, prison leavers are enabled to access the services and support networks needed to have a successful transition from prison, reducing the likelihood of reoffending,

How the project came about

HMP Wealstun contacted 100% Digital Leeds in mid-2021 to ask for help with updating their education offer for prisoners. Digital exclusion within prisons is widespread; connectivity is severely restricted by legislation and a high percentage of prisoners have literacy issues, learning difficulties and other barriers which make them more likely to be digitally excluded. Digital literacy is essential for prison-leavers who face challenges such as searching for housing, finding meaningful employment and building new support networks or reconnecting with family, all of which reduce the likelihood of reoffending.  

After exploratory work with the education staff at HMP Wealstun, part of the Reducing Reoffending department, we devised a digital inclusion strategy to fit with the strengths-based person-centred 100% Digital Leeds approach, maximising opportunities to embed digital inclusion support within existing settings and systems. Together we identified opportunities for intervention where digital can be embedded into current processes, or digital-style activities could be used in an offline environment. Working with our existing network of partners and bringing together new partners working directly within the prisons ecosystem in Leeds, we were able to identify various areas in which digital inclusion could be piloted with a view to wider implementation. 

“I contacted 100% Digital Leeds when we were reviewing our education provision at HMP Wealstun to see if they could add value around providing real life digital skills to prisoners and also what we currently deliver in the way of IT through our education provider. This is a difficult task in prisons as we have a lot of limitations with regards to equipment and internet access. 100% Digital Leeds have really taken the project into places I couldn’t have foreseen. By getting to know the whole of our service and processes from the ground up, they’ve been able to identify lots of opportunities for digital inclusion that we didn’t know existed. Together we are now identifying various areas to tackle digital exclusion together for prisoners and prison-leavers, which will provide them with better opportunities to find meaningful employment, avoid reoffending and live easier, more connected lives. 

Iain Sharkey, Learning and Skills Manager, HMP Wealstun

Intended outcomes 

By working with the prisons service as a whole, mapping the full journey of a prisoner from incarceration to post-release and working with partners to support digital inclusion at each available opportunity, we hope to achieve the following outcomes: 

  • People are equipped with real-life digital skills that they will use to find housing and meaningful employment on release
  • Prisons have better tools to support prisoners whilst in custody
  • Stronger partnerships between prison and third sector partners
  • Digital inclusion support is embedded within the processes of leaving prison
  • Maximise opportunities for prisoners to engage with digital whilst in custody
  • Reduced reoffending rates

Project delivery plans

Following the exploratory discussions, three main areas to focus our activity were identified as:

  • Improve in-prison support for improved digital skills, confidence and motivation
  • Improve the transition between internal and external support
  • Improve digital inclusion support for prison-leavers 

Improve in-prison support for improved digital skills, confidence, motivation

In-prison connectivity is severely limited at HMP Wealstun and across the wider prison service. Wealstun prisoners do not have in-cell technology and their only opportunities to engage with digital are in ICT classes via the restricted intranet software Virtual Campus, and to a lesser extent, in the ‘workshop’ environment. Although options around improving access are being explored, including linking with prisons like New Hall that are part of a pilot scheme to provide in-cell offline access, the fact that any connectivity is controlled across the system means the in-prison element of our work focuses on supporting skills, confidence and motivation. 

Bring more transferable ‘life skills’ into digital skills sessions

Existing ICT classes focussed on the Microsoft Office suite, recognised by education staff at HMP Wealstun as applications not relevant to the lives of many prisoners. This is partly because the limited internet access leaves the curriculum reliant on access to offline applications. We will improve the relevance of skills sessions by:

  • Improving the current ICT classes to include real-life essential digital skills relevant to the needs of the prisoners upon release, such as bidding for housing or using email.
  • Exploring opportunities to link with national strategy and the development of an essential digital skills curriculum. We have had discussions with HMPPS about the future of digital skills in prisons and we will be working together to implement new strategies. 
  • Increasing access to digital skills support outside of a formal qualification. Following discussions with key partners we are currently in the process of opening up access to Virtual Campus, a recognised online learning platform. 
  • Improvement of prisoner digital needs assessment. As requested by HMP Wealstun we have reviewed their current digital skills survey which prisoners take on entry. We found that some of the questions were not relevant to the support they were being offered and made suggestions to adapt the survey so that the answers people give can be linked to offers of support or a personalised learning plan. Based on our feedback, the survey is now being redesigned for all prisons in our region. The new surveys will give prisons more useful information about a prisoner’s digital capability and confidence, meaning they can offer more tailored digital inclusion support. 

Maximise opportunities to engage with digital outside of the classroom

Due to limited access to digital equipment and restricted connectivity the only real opportunity for prisoners at HMP Wealstun to engage with digital is in the ICT learning suite as part of a formal learning environment. Engaging with learning and education is ‘opt in’ and only a fraction of prisoners go down this route during their time in prison. Prisoners may have had negative experiences of the education system and thus do not see themselves as ‘learners’. Prisoners have expressed concern about being bullied for engaging with learning and education. Literacy issues are common. Many haven’t had much opportunity to use a computer before so lack digital skills and confidence. Offering more opportunities to engage with digital outside of a classroom environment will allow more prisoners to develop their digital confidence and understand the relevance of digital to them and their lives, making them more likely to engage with ICT classes. We will maximise opportunities to engage with digital outside of the classroom by:

  •  Exploring opportunities to embed digital into current activities e.g. in the on-site workshops where many prisoners are employed. We are arranging a pilot within the sewing machine repair workshop for systems to be updated and prisoners to have greater access to technology for stock control in a way which will help them develop their confidence and develop real-life digital skills they can take into employment on release. 
  • Embed digital inclusion support across other support services working with or within HMP Wealstun. We are working with DWP, Emmaus, St Giles Trust and other partners to increase awareness of digital inclusion and embed support into their activities, using offline tools and making better use of limited connectivity to practical sites like gov.uk via the Virtual Campus. We will encourage partners to support prisoner readiness for use of essential digital tools and platforms on their release such as Universal Credit and Housing Leeds bidding portal.
  • Explore opportunities to increase the access to digital equipment to support learning in HMP Wealstun. We have had discussions with other prisons in Leeds including learning from prisons who have access to in-cell technology. We are supporting the upgrade of current equipment in the workshop and a bid for 30 Chromebooks for HMP Wealstun.

Increase staff awareness of digital exclusion and improve the championing of digital 

Supporting HMP Wealstun staff to work in a way that is more mindful of the potential digital exclusion of prisoners will ensure that digital inclusion support is embedded across the whole prison. Advocating for the staff championing of digital will ensure prisoners will be encouraged to engage with digital in the right way for them, taking into account the barriers they personally face. We will ensure staff across the service are championing digital and its benefits in a way which is helpful and relevant to individual prisoners by:

  • A half-day staff digital inclusion workshop at HMP Wealstun when their strict Covid-19 protocols have been reduced, exploring barriers to digital inclusion and potential solutions.
  • Identifying key staff working within the prison service who have the opportunity to form a trusting relationship with, and understand the particular needs and motivations of, an individual prisoner. We will ensure that these staff have the awareness and skills needed to have encouraging and supportive digital inclusion conversations with the prisoners they work with, in a way that is person centred.

Improve the transition between internal and external support

We want to ensure that the digital skills supported in prison are the practical life skills necessary for prisoners on release. There are many partners engaging with prisoners while incarcerated supporting them with issues necessary for a positive release, such as employability, housing, and benefits. These are often different to the partners supporting the same issues after release. To ensure digital skills support is transferable and focussed on essential digital platforms like Universal Credit, and digital inclusion messaging and signposting is consistent.

  • We are bringing together partners working within HMP Wealstun such as DWP, St Giles Trust and Novus, with partners supporting prison leavers such as Leeds Housing Options, Barca, and Emmaus to ensure closer working and a more joined up support for prison leavers.
  • Prisoner Journey identifies key digital platforms prison-leavers need to engage with, and opportunities for support or digital inclusion interventions. This has allowed us to plan the next stages of our digital inclusion activity and ensure that every worker involved in a prisoner’s journey from incarceration to post-release understands the importance of digital inclusion and has it as a key consideration. 
  • We are working to improve signposting, ensuring that services working with prisons and prison-leavers are aware of each other and can confidently refer people to services that can benefit them. As well as looking at the whole ecosystem we are reviewing specific touchpoints such as a person’s handover from leaving prison to attending Leeds Housing Options for their first release appointment with Leeds City Council.

Improve digital inclusion support for prison leavers

We want to ensure that digital inclusion support is available to prisoners after their release by working with organisations who work with prison-leavers, to embed digital inclusion support across their services. Lack of connectivity has been identified as a particular issue for prison leavers and a barrier to people engaging with services and systems that support a successful prison release.

  • We are working with partners like Barca and Change Grow Live to explore how digital inclusion can be better supported across their services.
  • We are piloting supporting prison leavers with connectivity by working with Leeds Housing Options and BARCA to gift smartphones with data to selected prison-leavers through Hubbub and O2’s Community Calling scheme. We will be following the progress of the people who have been gifted devices and gathering evidence and case studies around its impact with a view to advocating for connectivity support alongside prison release.

“This is a really worthwhile project for the likes of BARCA to be able to help our clients thrive in the modern world and give them the best possible chance of getting their lives back on track and avoid re-offending.” 

Gary Wright, Housing Navigator at BARCA, working with prison-leavers

Next steps for implementation

Develop, monitor and evaluate pilot projects 

We have started gathering evaluation material for the pilot projects in the workshop at HMP Wealstun and the Community Calling smartphone gifting with Leeds Housing Options and BARCA. We will be gathering case studies and evaluating the processes to identify and address any issues. We will be developing our partnerships and offering training and awareness of digital inclusion issues to further support the organisations to pilot different approaches to digital inclusion. 

As we move forward there are plans in place for improved connectivity and access to updated equipment in HMP Wealstun and for prison-leavers in Leeds, as well as a greater understanding of digital inclusion throughout the organisations we’ve partnered with. This work will lead to important outcomes for over 1,000 people who go through the prison system at HMP Wealstun every year. 

Expand network and explore further opportunities

We have a clear direction with this work and we are building links and strengthening partnerships to improve digital inclusion and outcomes for prisoners and prison leavers. 

We will continue to develop relationships with partners across the third sector and within the Council and Prisons services in Leeds, as well as our relationship with HMPPS to tie in to national plans. We will also use the information gained from our pilot programmes to share best practice and widen our remit to work more closely with the other prisons in the Leeds region. 

We will work with organisations to enable them to implement our strategy to improve digital skills, confidence, motivation and access across the prisons and probation services. 

Evidence of impact  

BARCA have gifted smartphones with data via Hubbub and O2’s Community Calling scheme. These case studies demonstrate the impact so far.

PW is a 34 year old male who has been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. He was released from prison in November and gifted a Community Calling smartphone by Barca in December 2021. The device has allowed him to get online without having to visit the library or Job Centre meaning he could more regularly and proactively check his emails. He has been able to apply for a budget advance through DWP, find and secure housing, and complete a Peer Mentor course. Not having to rely on PAYG calls and data has allowed him to reconnect with and regularly contact his family and support services, allowing him to rebuild and maintain a positive support network including detoxing from methadone, meeting Probation requirements, and avoiding reoffending, all of which have allowed him to stay out of prison for the longest period of his adult life.

Service user case study, Barca

AH is a recent prison leaver who is being supported by Barca. He has spent a lot of his life in and out of jail for petty crime to fund a drug habit. The device gifted by Community Calling is the first smartphone he has ever owned. He is still building his digital skills and confidence but having a device has allowed him to stay in touch with his dad and use mapping apps to navigate between appointments allowing him to rebuild his life outside of prison. Having a smartphone has allowed him to keep himself busy and productive which helps him avoid falling back into bad habits. He enjoys hunting charity shops for bargains and uses the smartphone to research Maker’s Marks and other signs to determine whether an item he’s found can be re-sold for a profit. This is an activity his dad helps him with, helping them to strengthen their relationship.

Service user case study, Barca