Science and Technology

Forget prisons, the future of punishment will be virtual

By Tom Gash


Prisons have become the dominant symbol of punishment in modern democracies. But they are expensive and fundamentally don’t work. In 2020 we will be exploring ways to use technology to create virtual prisons that could eventually replace the bricks-and-mortar type. The opportunities, both for prisoners and the state, are huge. But so are the risks.

As policymakers and inmates know, prisons are among the most wasteful institutions in society. They waste money: in the UK, it costs around £80,000 per year to house a prisoner, taking into account the vast capital costs involved in building and maintaining prisons.

They waste potential: living in confinement with constant reminders of past and current failure and alongside the most antisocial in society is not the ideal context for developing life skills.

And they waste opportunities to reduce crime, sucking up funding that could be invested in smart policing and early support for those from backgrounds of trauma, abuse and neglect – all of which are much more cost-effective.

Electronic monitoring, in the form of tags, already makes use of location tracking, GPS and radio-frequency technologies. These will be augmented by sophisticated systems that will allow cross-referencing of the location of those under supervision with crime reports. . This will create huge scope to enforce additional restrictions on where they go, who they associate with and what they do.

There is also opportunity to make use of virtual reality for those under house arrest or curfew to support remote learning (think plumbing courses in VR headsets), or to recreate the privations of prison by requiring a certain number of hours in VR headset solitude.


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