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“PrisonCloud” Provides Limited Internet Access to Belgian Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

According to April 2016 news reports, Belgian prison authorities have instituted limited and controlled access to online services, including the Internet, at the Beveren Prison in Antwerp. The innovative system, called PrisonCloud, has caught the attention of criminal justice officials worldwide; unlike other prison communications systems, this one can be accessed by prisoners from their cells, subject to certain safeguards.

Wim Adriaenssen, deputy director of the Beveren facility, stated, “Inmates can go to a website where they can see what jobs are offered [on the outside] 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 downside.”

What’s clear is that the system provides options to prisoners that are not generally available in most facilities, if they have the funds to pay for them. PrisonCloud offers free games and access to books and legal materials, as well as access to restricted websites, but prisoners have to pay for secure email and phone calls, which can be made at any time from their cells. There is a meditation channel for calm reflection, and prisoners can access their own criminal case files and legal papers without the need to involve staff. Movies – including of the adult variety – are available for a fee of around $4 to $8. Each prisoner receives a USB drive plus a user name and password; their cells contain a monitor, keyboard, mouse, headset and equipment to connect them to a server.

Prison authorities in Belgium weighed the benefits between keeping prisoners occupied and out of trouble versus public criticism for being too lenient by allowing them access to PrisonCloud. “It’s also in our interest to keep them in humane conditions and that means providing for certain things,” Adriaenssen noted. “Society changes, prison changes.” Prison officials also hope the system will result in fewer conflicts between prisoners, and less need for staff members to be involved in providing services that prisoners can now access themselves.

Could such a system be implemented in the United States? A number of U.S. prisons already provide secure email, and supplying tablet computers to prisoners – particularly in jails – is a growing trend. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.52]. Plus there is no end to companies that offer fee-based services for prisoners in order to generate profit, ranging from the prison phone industry and video visits to commissary and package services.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that prisons in the U.S., with their decades-old focus on punishment over rehabilitation, and the realities of “tough on crime” victim-centered politics, will embrace a system like PrisonCloud any time soon.