‘Technically’ Worse: The Paradox of ‘Smart’ Prisons in India

A critical evaluation of the challenges posed by the digitization of Indian prisons.

Ashna Devaprasad is a final year law student at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi, India, and has a keen interest in researching prisoners’ rights and capital punishment. She is currently a Death Penalty Research Fellow at Project 39A.

Around the world, government support for the digital transformation of correctional institutions through the creation of ‘smart prisons’ is on the rise. Discussions on the use of Information and communication technologies (ICTs) in prison settings include introducing risk assessment software, facial recognition tools, artificial intelligence-based monitoring systems (AI), electronic tagging using GPS, and audio surveillance mechanisms. While using technology in the criminal justice system, part of a larger scheme of ‘algorithmic governmentality,’ can help address a shortage of prison staff and aid socially distant functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic, its routine application in homogenous environments of control raises serious human rights concerns.

Human rights advocates commenting on the use of such technology in law enforcement, including in prisons, have flagged issues like accuracy problems in violence detection, the possibility of embedded biases, invasions of privacy, data ownership, violations of consent, and a lack of transparency in their functioning. In an attempt to replicate these models, reports from India highlight efforts to install prison management software, AI-based video surveillance and drone monitoring to effectively scrutinise prison activities, check violent behaviour, and improve overall prison governance. In addition to posing a threat to the human rights of its prison populations, plans to digitise correctional institutions in India also suffer from implementational hurdles given the unique structural design and functional aspects of prisons in the country.

Nearly seventy prisons in India are currently known to be implementing an AI-based video surveillance software called JARVIS, developed by a locally run start-up. In some prisons, the software uses a combination of object recognition and computer vision to closely monitor live footage from prison cells and evaluate frisking of inmates, acts of violence, unauthorised use of contraband, and access to mobile phones, knives, guns, and other potentially dangerous weapons. Other jails have set up similar systems where prison personnel use automated drones to provide minute-to-minute information on activities within the prison, including casual interactions between jailers and inmates. In Punjab, the state government recently amended its Prison Rules to ‘strengthen security arrangements’ in its prisons by introducing various technologies. Consequently, prisons have installed a range of surveillance systems, including CCTVs, AI-enabled motion sensors, body scanners, biodata kiosks, mobile jammers and alarms. Though authorities claim that such measures will address prisoners’ grievances, the emphasis seems to be mass surveillance, preventing escapes and creating high-security enclosures, which authorities call ‘prisons within prisons.’

In India, prison authorities have continually praised this shift to ‘smart’ prisons, vaguely terming them as ‘spectacular’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘advanced’ solutions to security concerns. State authorities impetuously justify ‘smart’ initiatives in prisons using public safety and crime prevention rhetoric without offering any concrete scientific evidence on the actual logistics of their efficient functioning. The repeated use of such rhetoric enables the State to reproduce a ‘fabricated social truth’ grounded in what Jinee Lokaneeta calls ‘a spectacle of science’, without addressing how technological interventions will address the constantly changing and unpredictable human realities of prisoners’ lives. With no clarity on what these systems do, who has access to the data collected, and how prison officials will use such data, technological incarceration only reinforces the power and privilege of state authorities, disenfranchises prisoners and relegates them to the fringes.

Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, in her prison ethnography studies, characterises everyday Indian prison life as a chaotic confluence of nuanced negotiations between prisoners and prison staff — a constant struggle by inmates to secure rights, break free from discriminatory stereotypes on criminality and prevent frequent misuse of power by prison authorities. She draws attention to various strategies of control used by jail wardens to deny prisoners their basic amenities and their right to freedom of speech and expression. Introducing technological reforms to such authoritarian carceral settings complicates this chaos by forcing prisoners to rely on services they can neither choose nor truly consent to, thereby brushing aside the ethical burdens of the State.

Although replacing human reasoning with automated technology in prisons could arguably minimise subjective human decisions leading to bias, a failure to recognise distinct living conditions in Indian jails could magnify opaqueness through unilateral decision-making and exacerbate ‘past injustices or produce new ones.’ For instance, technological incarceration could become a source of exclusion and invisibilisation, especially for illiterate and impoverished prisoners who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and have little background knowledge about these issues.

As Bandyopadhyay notes, mutual prisoner-staff negotiations often help prisoners construct meaningful, smaller worlds within the jail by opportunistically preserving self-interest even in the slightest of ways. The substitution of such human interactions with tightened non-human technologies only deprives prisoners of their agency, heightens manipulation risks, and worsens their frustrations and anxieties. Similarly, a decision to protest against technological surveillance or a refusal to volunteer biodata could increase chances of exploitation, with prison officials arbitrarily denying prisoners material ‘privileges’. Removing human staff from the equation could aggravate distrust among the prison community, who may perceive ‘secret surveillance systems’ as nothing but deliberate strategies to exercise more power and invade their privacy.

The ‘smartification of prisons’ could also result in what Kaun and Stiernstedt identify as a ‘desynchronisation between the temporalities of prisoners’ lived experience and temporalities of digital technologies.’ For example, from the prison regulation perspective, jail officials could take swift remedial action in the form of complete lockdowns or pervasive monitoring of personal communications under the garb of providing real-time surveillance to efficiently identify regulatory breaches. For prisoners, such ‘immediate results’ that are non-negotiable then translate to more repressive prison conditions. Fast-paced digital reform thus paradoxically becomes a way for authorities to maintain the institutional goal of ordered routines, slowness, and predictability of prison life. Concomitantly,  prison officials evade responsibility for their choices while interpreting the results generated from automated monitoring systems and proving their effectiveness. Since technological reform is accompanied by the dehumanisation of everyday prison governance, officials can mechanically control how prisoners spend their time, placing constraints on their sociality and bodily mobility.

Much like prison reform in other areas in the past, efforts to digitise prisons in India have thus far been piecemeal, opaque and undemocratic. Although measures to introduce technological reforms within carceral settings may be well-intentioned, failing to plan and scrutinise their implementation could give rise to a ‘modern panopticon’ — an invisible surveillance mechanism within an already disintegrating criminal justice system that validates power and subordination, exacerbates vulnerability, and normalises social sorting to identify deviant behaviour. From the State’s perspective, it is symbolic of a deliberate policy to reinvent the status quo — to ignore the harsh sociocultural and legal-political realities of everyday prison life, retain arbitrary control, and continue to deprive prisoners of their most fundamental human rights.

Ashna Devaprasad,  The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi, India.  

Email: ashnad96@gmail.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ashdev13

Images: courtesy of the author

U.S. Police Academies Overemphasize “Warrior” Training of New Officers

National-level data of U.S. police academies indicate basic training of new police recruits overemphasizes traditional “warrior-style” training

John Sloan is Professor Emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham whose research interests include police recruitment, training, and ethics.

Gene Paoline is Professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida and former Chair of the Division of Policing for the American Society of Criminology whose research interests include police culture, use of force, and training.

The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on charges of second degree murder in the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020 has brought into sharp relief the training U.S. police officers receive. Evidence presented to date in the trial shows that Chauvin misused physical constraints officers are trained to use when responding to someone who is resisting arrest. The prosecution claims Officer Chauvin’s purposeful misuse of the constraints directly resulted in Mr. Floyd being asphyxiated.

 The killing of George Floyd is but one in a long series of well-documented incidents over the past decade where unarmed citizens in the U.S., disproportionately people of color, experienced excessive – including deadly – force by police during the encounter. As a result, heated debate continues in the U.S. over policy responses to police violence. Some critics have opined the only option is to abolish the police and replace them with other systems of public safety. Others have urged defunding the police and redirecting that funding to other areas such as mental health, housing, and other programs. Still others have argued what is needed is “reimagining” police training by completely overhauling it.

Questions about the training of U.S. police officers are not new. During the 20th century, for example, at least three major commissions were created to reform the police and included a focus on police training. The most recent example of such a commission was the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing convened by the Obama administration and which focused a great deal of attention to perceived deficits in both basic law enforcement training (BLET) for new hires as well as in-service  training for officers on the job. Among others, the Task Force recommended the federal government partner with training facilities to promote consistent standards, establish training innovation hubs involving universities and police academies, and create a national postgraduate “institute of policing” for senior-level police officials that would include a standard curriculum preparing them to lead agencies into the 21st century.

The problem as we see it, is little research has been conducted on BLET and most of what has been done has focused on basic training occurring at a few academies. In fact, a large portion of BLET research involves case studies conducted at  a few academies. To our knowledge, no national-level studies of U.S. police training academies – where most BLET occurs – have been published since the 1980s. To remedy this, we have been examining the structure and organization of BLET using data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from the population of U.S. academies offering such training in 2011-2013, the third wave of data collection (a fourth wave of data has been collected and is currently being prepared for public release). The BJS census compiles information on the number and type of staff employed, academy budgets and sources of funding, number of officers trained and their demographic characteristics, policies and practices, and training curriculum.

To understand the importance of BLET, it’s important to place it into a larger context relating to how new officers are exposed to and begin the process of socialization into their occupation. For example, in America, these individuals have been recruited into policing and gotten through a rather extensive hiring process that includes civil service tests, background checks, drug tests and polygraph exams, and one-on-one interviews with department officials in charge of hiring. Another major hurdle is completing BLET at a police academy.

New hires are typically “sponsored” by the hiring department and while technically they can attend any of the approximately 600 accredited academies operating across the U.S., they usually attend an academy preferred by the hiring department, often one the department operates. And while one can classify academies any number of ways, we suggest there are two basic types: law enforcement agency academies (LEAAs) operated by or formally affiliated with municipal, state, or county police departments, and academic institution academies (AIAs) operated by or formally affiliated with two-year or four-colleges or universities or with local public school systems through “career centers” or similar operations. About 56% of U.S. academies are LEAAs and 44% are AIAs.

On average and regardless of which type of academy attended, new recruits will be required to complete about 837 contact hours of BLET –  about 21 weeks of eight-hours-per-day, five days a week – which, in its own right, is impressive and suggests new officers are not being rushed to the streets. Most of the contact hours (about 680 hours on average) consist of training in the BLET “core curriculum” that includes six substantive areas that in turn are comprised of specific topics: operations (seven topics), weapons/defensive tactics (three topics), “special topics” (16 topics), self-improvement (six topics), legal issues (three topics), and community-oriented policing (COP) (four topics). Using various methods including lecture, scenario-based training, and adragogy (adult focused learning), both full-time and part-time academy instructors deliver the training and evaluate recruits’ performance using different tests, including written, oral, and skills- or competency-based.

Research we’re conducting on BLET curricula at U.S. academies reveals several interesting patterns. While between type-of-academy differences exist, we nonetheless find striking similarities:

  • About 54% (~369 hrs.) of total core basic law enforcement training hours are devoted to just two areas: operations (33%; ~225 hrs.) and weapons/defensive tactics training (21%; ~144 hrs.). More specifically, training is devoted to topics involving patrol tactics and procedures (25% of operations hours) and criminal investigations (21% of operations hours), along with firearms skills (47% of weapons/defensive tactics training) and defensive tactics (42% of weapons/defensive tactics training). Only about 6% (~42 hrs.) of total core training hours are devoted to COP and topics like cultural diversity and conflict management;
  • About one-quarter (24%) of total training hours in the core area of “special topics” are devoted to the use of force. The remaining 15 topics comprise the rest of the training hours;
  • Just over one-half (52%) of training hours in self-improvement are devoted to physical fitness. The remaining hours are devoted to five topics including communication, professionalism, ethics & integrity, stress mitigation, and the basics of a foreign language.
  • Overall, approximately three-quarters (74%) of the total BLET hours are devoted to just 13 (of 39) topics, all of which seek to develop in new officers skills largely associated with “traditional” aspects of policing like use of (lethal) weapons, emergency vehicle operations, criminal investigations, report writing, traffic enforcement and accident response, patrol tactics, and criminal/constitutional law.

To be clear, we are not suggesting topics such as patrol tactics and criminal investigation should no longer be included in BLET. However, as Sue Rahr and Stephen Rice have cogently observed, “fueled by post 9-11 fear”, American policing “veered away from Sir Robert Peel’s ideal that ‘the police are the people, and the people are the police’ and toward a culture and mindset more like soldiers at war with the people [the police] are sworn to protect and serve”. Rahr & Rice also argue “The seeds of [the warrior mindset] are planted during recruit training, where some recruits are trained  in an academy environment modeled after military boot camp”: a model that produces a warrior ready for battle and to follow orders and rules. The problem is while patrolling, most of the time no supervisor is present to “give orders” to officers. Rather, they are largely on-their-own to decide how to respond to myriad situations encountered when interacting with members of the community who are often people of color who neither look like the officers, or come from similar backgrounds.

To Rahr & Rice’s point about the academy “sowing the seeds” of police-as-warriors, if one assesses the proportion of time allocated to traditional policing functions – compared to training hours in non-traditional areas such as communication, cultural diversity, ethics and professionalism, and stress management – the scales clearly tip in the direction of the former. In fact, hours allocated to all of the “non-traditional” topics are less than the hours allocated to just firearms skills training or to just defensive tactics involving exerting physical control over people who are resisting officers’ efforts to arrest them.

Over 80 years ago, the American police reformer August Vollmer bemoaned the lack of personnel standards relating to officers and available training for them. Since then various commissions – convened to investigate allegations of inappropriate police behavior (individually or organizationally) and identify best practices for effective crime reduction, while building and preserving community trust – have either indirectly or directly focused their attention on the importance of police training, including that received at police academies. Thus, for nearly a century, police scholars and practitioners alike have argued the nation’s police officers should receive either more training, better training, or some combination of the two. Few of these assertions, however, have been buttressed with empirical evidence.

Our ongoing research into BLET finds that police recruits do not seem to need more training: on average, basic training involves more than five months of full-time activity. Rather, what is needed is providing recruits with different training. However, achieving that goal necessitates a complete reorientation of the BLET curriculum to deemphasize traditional aspects of policing like operations and weapons/defensive tactics geared toward teaching recruits about and preparing them to “go to war” that is too often waged disproportionately against citizens of color in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This new curriculum would instead emphasize to recruits the need to develop skills in communication, stress management, building partnerships with the community, and problem solving. Recruits would also internalize mounting evidence that procedural justice is inexorably linked to police legitimacy, especially in communities of color; understand that greater diversity brings strength, not weakness, to the ranks; and learn how to make ethically sound decisions while simultaneously advancing professionalism within policing. While this reorientation will likely encounter resistance, if American policing is to survive current existential threats to its continued existence and rebuild the trust that has been lost in so many communities, the choice seems obvious.


John J. Sloan, III, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Email: prof@uab.edu

Twitter: @SloanProf

Eugene A. Paoline, III, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida

Email: Eugene.Paoline@ucf.edu

Website: https://ccie.ucf.edu/profile/gene-paoline/

Photographs courtesy of authors and 88192456@creativecommonsstockphotos|Dreamscape.com 

Is Nothing Sacred: The Creation of a Criminal Other

How cultural genocide has led to the Australian indigenous population to be viewed as a ‘criminal other’.

Andy Diaper is an independent social researcher. He works with vulnerable and excluded people within the community. His main research interests are groups that are excluded, harmed, and criminalised, including indigenous populations.

On 24th May 2020, two ancient rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia were destroyed by blasting. The Anglo-Australian multinational mining corporation Rio Tinto carried out the blasting work.  This was to increase the size of their open-cut iron ore mine named Brockman 4. These shelters were sacred sites to the indigenous population and of great archaeological/spiritual importance. This was the only site in Australia  to show continual human occupation stretching back forty-six thousand years.

Rio Tinto were fully aware of both the historical (they had commissioned an archaeological survey of the site) and the spiritual importance. It was not the only option for the expansion, they had investigated four options: three of which would not have damaged the rock shelters. The reason this option was chosen was it would yield an extra eight million tonnes of high-grade iron ore with a net value of seventy-five million pounds.

The traditional owners of the area the Poutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP) only learned of the blasting nine days before the detonation. Lawyers acting on behalf of the PKKP contacted the Federal Indigenous Affairs minister to intervene on heritage grounds. The minister’s office never replied to the lawyers. It should be made clear that Rio Tinto were acting under  section 18 of the Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.

Was this act a singular event? Or a misunderstanding? Rio Tinto has a very poor record in its dealings with the environment and indigenous populations. This event can be viewed as a continuation of the cultural genocide of the indigenous people of Australia.

This cultural genocide is not carried out in an overt way. There is no single perpetrator creating death camps, destroying cultural symbols and sites in the name of some form of purity. This could be called the ‘banality of genocide’. That is there is no single perpetrator, no monstrous ‘other’. This is genocide by a thousand cuts, this is not just a simple metaphor. It was borne out of colonialism with its inherent racism and profiteering which has been reproduced by governments over time. With the ever-increasing move to neoliberal politics this has created the space for other actors to exploit the continuing destruction of the indigenous population to meet their own wants. It can be argued that the neoliberal project is harmful to all vulnerable and disempowered populations. Any concentration on the meritocratic path holds an expectation for the individual to improve their position within the social structure. If however, you are denied the means to achieve this, it can only lead to aspirational failure, despair, and frustration. In the case of the indigenous population this is particularly toxic. With the ongoing destruction of their culture, they become a people with no ‘roots’ or ‘culture’ within what is their own country. In effect a diaspora within their own country.

Genocidal acts against the indigenous population began with colonisation: both physical and cultural. They lost all rights to their land when it was declared ‘Terra Nullis’, as this legitimised the seizure of the land. The indigenous population was decimated by diseases brought in by the colonisers, to which they had no natural immunity. Also, there were deliberate acts of slaughter. These state-sanctioned massacres were not just committed in the early years of colonisation but continued up to the late1920’s.

It was not until 1967 that the Australian government recognised the indigenous population as individualised people. However, even with this recognition it has not eliminated the discrimination, inequality and other harms being perpetrated.

Examples of these harms are 3.1 percent of the Australian population is indigenous, however, 19.3 percent live in poverty compared to 12.4 percent of other Australians. Approximately 20 percent living in non-rural areas live in overcrowded accommodation. The combination of poor housing and poverty impacts on health and mortality outcomes which are also poorer and higher than other Australians. Youth suicide between the ages of five and seventeen is five times higher than non-indigenous people. There is an overrepresentation in the Australian Child Protection system of indigenous children. It is argued that this system supports thousands of jobs from various professions. For example, lawyers, social workers, medical professionals and psychologists, these groups benefit financially from ‘indigenous disadvantage’ A causal reason for this overrepresentation is poverty and systemic racism. It has been likened to a second ‘stolen generation’.

 The indigenous population is also heavily overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Indigenous people are 12.5 times more likely to be in prison as opposed to non-indigenous people. Indigenous females are 21.2 times more likely to be in prison than non-indigenous women. This imprisonment rate is also higher than the rate for non-indigenous men. This overrepresentation has been recognised as symptomatic of the historical and current harms to this population. This also applies to the higher death rate in custody.

The harms perpetrated on the indigenous population, colonisation, post-colonial actions, institutional racism, and an increasing turn to neoliberal politics, is a toxic mix. By its nature neoliberal politics opens the ‘space’ for the private sector to run roughshod over the weak and vulnerable. The belief that it is the responsibility of individuals – not the state – to improve lives, becomes a potential breeding ground for the perpetuation and increase of racism in the wider public. The overrepresentation of the indigenous population in the justice and ‘social care’ system and entrenched racism has led to a misrecognition. The indigenous people are viewed as the architects of their own plight. They are viewed as a criminal ‘other’ and not worthy of help and protection.

On January 26th, each year, the Australian nation celebrate ‘Australia Day’. This marks the raising of the union flag in 1788, some two hundred and thirty-three years ago, beginning the colonisation of Australia. For the indigenous population it is not a day of celebration but a day of mourning. A visceral reminder of the divisiveness, harms and abuses perpetrated upon them historically and continuing  in the present. These harms will continue until those in positions of power move away from tokenism and introduce and strengthen equal and human rights and the protection of indigenous lands.

The article will conclude back in the rock shelters at Juukan gorge, more than seven thousand archaeological artifacts were discovered. One of these was a fragment  of a belt made from plaited human hair. After scientific analysis it was found to be four thousand years old. The DNA results revealed that the owner of the hair was a direct descendant of the PKKP indigenous people still inhabiting this region today.


Andy Diaper, Independent Researcher.

Email: andy.diaper@btinternet.com

Twitter: @andy_diaper  

Author image courtesy of Melissa Diaper.

Cave art image copyright free.