Internet of incarceration: How AI could put an end to prisons as we know them

Dan Hunter is a prison guard's worst nightmare. But he's not a hardened crim.

As dean of Swinburne University's Law School, he's working to have most wardens replaced by a system of advanced artificial intelligence connected to a network of high-tech sensors.

Called the Technological Incarceration Project, the idea is to make not so much an internet of things as an internet of incarceration.

Professor Hunter's team is researching an advanced form of home detention, using artificial intelligence, machine-learning algorithms and lightweight electronic sensors to monitor convicted offenders on a 24-hour basis.

"If we had to use human beings, the cost of monitoring every single type of interaction would be prohibitively expensive," he says.

But new technologies are now capable of providing automated surveillance at a fraction of that expense, he says, using equipment that's already in existence or under development.

Under his team's proposal, offenders would be fitted with an electronic bracelet or anklet capable of delivering an incapacitating shock if an algorithm detects that a new crime or violation is about to be committed.

That assessment would be made by a combination of biometric factors, such as voice recognition and facial analysis.

His vision is futuristic, but it isn't simply technological fetishism. He's convinced such automation will make for a better society.

Under his proposal, the main costs of incarceration are borne by the offender and his or her family, not by the state, while law-breakers are isolated from each other, decreasing the risk of offenders becoming hardened by the system.

Changing a backward-looking mindset

While technology has transformed our society, the jails of the 21st century operate pretty much as they did 100 years ago.

"We are at the point now where we can fundamentally rethink the way in which we incarcerate people," Professor Hunter says.

"If what we want to do is we want to keep the community safe, if we want to have the greatest possibility of rehabilitation of the offender and if we want to save money, then there are alternatives to prison that actually make a lot of sense."

The justice systems of major Anglosphere countries, including Australia, have a long history of favouring retribution over rehabilitation. Law and order issues are a political perennial.

In early 2016, then British Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, threw his weight behind prison reform, announcing a major policy rethink for the UK with an emphasis on developing the sorts of home-detention technologies proposed by the Swinburne project.

The PM's plan also involved the creation of six new "reform" prisons in England and Wales, declaring the failure of the current system "scandalous".

"I also strongly believe that we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope," he said at the time.

Recognising when the system 'clearly isn't working'

For criminologist and prison reform advocate Yvonne Jewkes, the Cameron reform package represented an opportunity.

"I think there was a very strong statement made that that government wanted to design out the dark corners of prisons and really make prisons more humane environments," she says.

However, her hopes were soon thwarted by Brexit and changes at Downing Street. One year on, it's still unclear whether Mr Cameron's embattled successor, Theresa May, has the ambition or the will to follow through.

"We don't know where we are at the moment," Professor Jewkes says.

"I think there is a strong recognition now in the UK that the prison system is bloated and unsustainable.

"We've been trying the same model of punishment and incarceration for the last 200 years, and our recidivism rates indicate that it clearly isn't working."

Across the Atlantic, the situation is even worse.

Decades of law and order grandstanding has seen America's prison population swell beyond the two million mark. More people are locked up in the "land of the free" than in any other country.

One in every 1,000 US adults are now in prison, and the nation spends more than $100 billion annually on corrections. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has promised more prisons to come.

No system is perfect — but some might be better than others

Halden prison in Norway is seen by many reformers as a model prison.

It holds high-security inmates, but it has been designed to be comfortable and aesthetically appealing with natural landscaping and less intimidating buildings.

Scandinavian countries also have a system of "open" prisons — low security facilities not bound by prison walls.

American reform advocate Doran Larson argues the strength of such facilities is that they offer a reintegration environment for offenders.

"They can work during the day, so they can begin to reacquire job skills and even job positions, as well as continuing with whatever programming the institution has assigned to them."

For Larson, that means a smoother transition between restricted confinement and the freedom of the outside world.

Professor Larson is an expert on the Scandinavian prison system, but he has also taught literature and creative writing in US jails for the better part of a decade.

Australian, American and British prisons, he argues, continue to be disadvantaged by their focus on the past.

"People are going in there to get that amount of punishment that somehow is magically going to balance out the damage they did outside.

"The Scandinavian prisons, with their philosophy of normalcy, are completely forward-looking.

"Once you've been given a confinement, confinement is the punishment — it's all the punishment. Everything else there is aimed at preparing you to go outside and re-join, or join for the first time, constructive, taxpaying society."

That element of "normalcy", argues Professor Larson, forces criminals to reflect on their own behaviour and guilt, rather than to see themselves as victims.

The Scandinavian model: an alternative for the Anglosphere?

Professor Larson cautions that the Scandinavian model isn't a cheap alternative to traditional forms of incarceration, but he argues its overall success rate is substantial.

He also acknowledges that Scandinavian countries have specific characteristics that suit the style of correction they've developed: they are small, quite wealthy per capita, and have lower rates of income inequality.

He believes Halden could be used as a role model for change — but not, he maintains, until Anglosphere countries get over their focus on retribution above reform.

"Most important is to look at the philosophy and general attitude that stands behind those practices: an attitude which is forward-looking rather than backward looking, which is looking toward rehabilitation and restoration rather than retribution," he says.

"That change in thinking is the crucial first step."