‘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

Wheelchair users facing discriminatory and disablist attitudes from taxi drivers

Wheelchair users are facing a lack of independence due to the discriminatory and disablist attitudes from public transport providers.

Amanda Hanson is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology and Doctoral student. Her research focuses on the topic of Disability Hate Crime with a particular focus on disabled people’s experiences of hate crimes/incidents and understanding how these experiences impact victims and families and how they want these issues responded to.

Taxi drivers are taking their foot off the gas: wheelchair users facing a lack of independence due to the discriminatory and disablist attitudes from public transport providers.

We live in a society where disabled people routinely suffer identity-based discrimination resulting in them being made to feel unequal.

The recent article published by the BBC on the experience of disabled actress Ruth Madeley by a taxi driver, where he told her it was “too difficult” to drop her at an accessible entrance and it wasn’t his problem if she couldn’t use stairs, highlights just one example of disablist attitudes by transport providers.

This concurs with my current research where a severely visually impaired woman was dropped at the side of a busy road by a taxi driver, for which she then had to struggle to get across to the other side safely.

This kind of behaviour by taxi drivers is more widespread within society than people may think. While many taxi drivers don’t discriminate or have disablist attitudes some do.

My research has found that wheelchair users are being told by taxi operators there are no accessible taxis available and that taxi drivers themselves are refusing to take those in powered wheelchairs.

One individual stated, “I approached five taxis who all refused to take me home when my power wheelchair was about to die”

If they do finally manage to access a taxi, they are being charged higher rates compared to those who are able-bodied.

These extra charges have previously been highlighted in an undercover study carried out by BBC’s Inside Out in 2015. There has also been one landmark case where a taxi driver was taken to court after refusing to take a wheelchair user to the train station and causing her to become upset and missing her train.

Yet, six years on cases like this are still occurring and there seems to be a lack of consequence for the taxi drivers who are committing these discriminatory acts.

This is a clear breach of the Equality Act 2010 sect 165 & 167 which includes a requirement for drivers to accept and assist wheelchair users and make no extra charge. As a society, we should be calling out behaviour that treats people unequally and unfairly as unacceptable. Local authorities should be implementing licence bans for those committing this kind of behaviour, as this targeting of wheelchair users should be deemed prejudicial.

Many wheelchair users rely on taxis rather than public transport, they are more convenient, and they are preferable especially when considering the negative often hostile attitudes that disabled people regularly experience from other passengers and public transport staff (Wilkin 2019).

Disabled people often suffer isolation due to their disability which prevents them from fully taking part in society. Last year marked the celebration of 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. While this legislation was a step in the right direction, one of those being the recognition of the lack of access to transport for disabled individuals, these access issues are still happening in the 21st century and this is a clear reminder that more needs to be done.

Similarly, numerous studies highlight that disabled people face economic disadvantages and are more likely to be living in poverty compared to those who are able-bodied. These higher charges are impacting upon them financially. Therefore, this discriminatory behaviour from taxi drivers serves to compound the existing problems that disabled people have faced for years.

The key focus requires taking a stand against attitudes that reinforce disablism. Public organisations like Local Authority Licensing departments need to develop public communications and implement awareness-raising to challenge these discriminatory mindsets and practices, to help safeguard wheelchair users and implement consequences for those who continue to exhibit discriminatory and disablist attitudes.

The implementation of these kinds of strategies would be a step in the right direction to address the extent of this issue, to allow equal provision for wheelchair users, in order for them to regain their independence within society.  

This article was originally published by Nottingham Trent University and is re-published with their permission

Amanda Hanson, Associate Lecturer & Doctoral student, Nottingham Trent University

Email: amanda.hanson@ntu.ac.uk

Twitter: HansonApeirce28 

Image: courtesy of the author

Decolonizing Criminology through the inclusion of epistemologies of the south

Kerry Carrington is a Research Professor at the Centre for Justice Queensland University of Technology, and Fellow of the Academy of SocialSciences. Kerry leads multi-lingual research teams across the globe on southernizing criminology projects. She’s the Founding Editor of the Open Access International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy.

What needs de-colonising?  Metropolitan thinking in criminology

Metropolitan thinking rests on a linear, panoramic and unifying standpoint in which space, and geo-political and social difference, are erased in the imperial narrative of time. This temporal logic constructs societies peripheral to the epicentres of colonial power as backward. Hence the division of the world into ‘developing’ and ‘developed’, ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds, in which the global north is depicted as leading the way to an advanced stage of civilisation (Carrington and Hogg et al, 2018: 6). A multitude of perspectives, de-colonial, post-colonial, Indigenous, southern, southern feminist, and subaltern theories have criticised this way of dividing the world and measuring human progress (Aas, 2012; Agozino, 2010; Brown, 2018; Campos, 2018; Carrington et al., 2016; Connell, 2007; Cunneen, 2018; de Magalhães Gomes, 2018;  de Sousa Santos, 2014; Leon, 2021;  Lui, 2009; 2017; Mignolo, 2011; Travers, 2019).

According to this logic, social phenomena in the ‘periphery’ would be investigated from the standpoint of universal theories and laws of development generated in ‘modern’ or ‘Western’ societies of the Global North (Connell, 2007). The South could be mined for data, as for other raw materials, but little in the way of novel ideas or theoretical insights of anything more than local interest could be yielded by the social scientific enterprise in the South. Connell calls this ‘metropolitan’ thinking (Connell 2007: 215).  We argue this has also been true for criminology (Carrington, Hogg and Sozzo, 2016).

Why southern? A metaphor for centre/periphery relations of power

Raewyn Connell deliberately chose the label southern for three reasons. First, to direct attention to periphery-centre relations of power and the epistemic privilege of the universities of the global north, where around 90% of the world’s journals, universities, resources for doing research reside. The south is conceptualised as a metaphor for the unequal economic, political and intellectual power relations embedded in metropolitan thinking. Second, to highlight the fact that social theory can be developed from the periphery – not just the centres of power and epistemic privilege. And third, that social thought is positioned – specific to place and the land, not universal or timeless (Connell, 2007: viii-ix). This means there are multiple – not dichotomous- epistemologies of south and north, east and west, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.  When taken in its metaphorical sense, the ‘south’ refers to the peripheral voices located anywhere in the world. The South and North are not homogeneous or mutually exclusive spaces or categories. This is a prominent theme in the work of critical criminologists like Elliot Currie, who argues that ‘we cannot begin to grasp either the nature or origins of America’s outsized problem of violent crime (or of punishment) without placing the ‘Southern’ legacy in the foreground’ (Currie, 2018: 44).  He is referring to the history of slavery and transportation of 10-15 million Africans to the Americas (north and south) from the 16th century.

Border thinking and de-colonising knowledge

Boaventura de Sousa Santos stresses that the task of de-colonising knowledge is complex, gigantic, and in some contexts, born of struggle against capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism (2020: 220-27).  He argues there are two main projects of de-colonising knowledge – one negative and the other positive. The negative championed by decolonial theory is to critique and root out ethnocentric, racist and anglocentric biases of knowledge systems. This journey has many champions. The positive and more challenging project is the constructive work of building the epistemologies of the south (de Santos Sousa, 2020: 226). The plural is deliberate as the key to disrupting the hegemony of northern epistemologies is to build diverse epistemologies, through what he calls border thinking. This journey has fewer champions, of which I am one.

de Sousa Santos argues there can be no global justice without cognitive justice (de Sousa Santos 2014: viii). Like Connell, he is critical of the way the history of the social sciences has projected itself as an emancipatory project while its modernist ideals remained based on the experience of metropolitan societies (de Sousa Santos 2014: 71). However, unlike many post-or de-colonial theorists who see little worth recovering from Northern theories, de Sousa Santos does imagine that a non-Occidentalist West is a possibility (de Sousa Santos 2014: 114). Consequently, he rejects the reductionism of post-colonial/decolonial theories that reify and essentialise concepts, such as Eastern or Indigenous knowledge and stand them in outright opposition to Western scientific knowledge (de Sousa Santos 2014: 212). Rather, he opts for border thinking, inter-cultural thinking and ways of knowing which offer an escape from the colonising effects of the global episteme. He defines these alternative knowledges as necessarily limited as opposed to the universalising claims of metropolitan thought (de Sousa Santos 2014: 212). Border thinking occurs in the spaces in between, with the view that ‘knowledges that may be refounded, reconfigured, and reconstructed in such a way that they may be put at the service of anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-patriarchal struggles’ (de Sousa Santos, 2020: 225).  It is futile to challenge the global hierarchy of knowledge by resurrecting alternative origin stories or ‘founding fathers’, as some de-colonial theorists have done. This engages in the same rhetorical strategy of producing false binaries as does metropolitan thought (Connell, 2007: xi).

Southernizing criminology as a salve for its metropolitan thinking

The southernizing of criminology acts as a salve for the biases of metropolitan thinking (Hughes, 2020: 194). Southern criminologies (and the plural is deliberate as there is no single unifying voice from the global south), contest the universalism of theories based on knowledge specific to English speaking countries of the north Atlantic world. They question linear models of progress and colonialist constructions of justice used in criminology to measure other justice systems as backward, exotic or primitive and challenge criminological theories that erase the historical legacies of colonialism, slavery and structured global inequality.

As a theoretical project the southernizing of criminology seeks to reorient and correct hegemonic biases, to expand the repertoire of criminological knowledges beyond their heavily laden northern gaze. It is premised on the recognition that North and South are globally interconnected in ways and with effects, both historical and contemporary, which warrant careful inquiry and analysis in criminological research, theoretical, and policy agendas (Carrington et al 2016; 2019). De-colonising criminology steers a tricky pathway along what the Bengali social scientist Chakrabarty (2007) calls conceptual pragmatism that accepts knowledge is so embedded with metropolitan thought it is not possible to completely disentangle it from its hegemony (Chakrabarty, 2007) (see Brown 2018). But a criminology that aims to decenter, democratize and pluralize knowledge by injecting it with knowledge from the south and the periphery is possible.  Indeed, rather than creating divisions, southern criminologies seek to build epistemological bridges, based on the premise that an important form of decolonial action is achieved by ‘affecting and transforming the contents of Western science, through the use of knowledge, realities and cosmologies’ of the south (Goyes, 2018: 337).

As an empirical project, epistemologies of the south seek to cultivate knowledges of and from the periphery that have been relatively invisible or marginalized (Alvirti et al., 2021; Carrington, Hogg and Sozzo, 2016; Carrington et al., 2018; Carrington, Goyes, et al., 2019; Goyes, 2019; Fonseca, 2018; Valdés-Riesco, 2020). One of the emphases is to reinsert the historical legacies of colonialism back into analysis of contemporary crime and justice. Not in the same way as comparative criminology has done it, by drawing comparisons framed by an orientalism or elitism that constructs non-western societies as ‘exotic,’ ‘primitive’ or the ‘other’ (Liu, 2011; 2017). Southern epistemologies seek ‘to contemplate life, crime and social order outside the metropolitan North, … (and) to find new ways of thinking about phenomena so that the South is understood on its own terms’ (Brown, 2018: 83).

One of the problems with theories of decolonisation, has been the tendency to essentialise race and romanticise ethnicity. This argues Camilla de Magalhães Gomes (2018; 2021), makes invisible the gender of colonality. She is critical of the lack of gender perspectives in the work of de-colonial theorists insisting that ‘gender is a category of decolonial analysis’ (de Magalhães Gomes, 2021: 1). Attempts at de-colonizing feminist theory and social science are not new (eg. Mohanty, 1991; Lugones, 2010). What is relatively new is the emergence of southern feminisms (Campos, 2020; Giraldo, 2016; Lima Costa, 2014; Tlostanova, et al., 2016; Rodriguez Castro, 2020), that aim to docolonise and democratise feminist theory (Connell, 2015: 59), by embracing a mosaic of epistemologies (Connell, 2015: 59) using border thinking (Tlostanova, et al., 2016). ‘Feminist border thinking is a horizontal transversal networking of different local histories and sensibilities mobilised through a number of common, yet pluriversal and open categories’ (Tlostanov, et al., 2016: 217).

As Leon Mossavi (2018) rightly points out, there have been previous attempts to unpack and jettison what he calls ‘westernised criminology’—to trans-nationalize it (Aas, 2012; Bowling, 2011) and to decolonize it (Agozino, 2010; Cunneen, 2011; 2018). What differentiates southern criminologies from these critiques, however, is that it eschews the romanticization of ‘the other’; based on identity, class, race, Indigeneity or ethnicity (Cain, 2000).  That southern criminologies are not in principle oppositional projects which rest on identity politics, does not make them, as some armchair critics suggest, a form of incorporation or a bandwagon (Moosavi, 2020). Nor is it ‘a defensive reflex, designed to exonerate Anglo-spheric theory from complicity in epistemic violence’ (Blagg and Anthony, 2019: 6). Their book titled, Decolonising Criminology critiques criminologies of the south without even referencing a single example. It was reviewed by Tharawal woman, Robyn Oxley an early career Indigenous scholar, who pointed out that Blagg and Anthony quote very few Indigenous scholars, concluding: ‘For non-Aboriginal scholars who have built their careers on the backs of Aboriginal people, the time has come to make space for Indigenous scholars’ (Oxley, 2020: 180-181).

The crude simplistic critiques of southern criminologies published in privileged journals in United States and England overlook the many shared similarities between those who aim to decolonize knowledge through decolonial critique, what Dimou refers to as ‘the decolonial option’ (2021:1), and those who seek to decolonize knowledge through constructing southern epistemologies through border thinking and intercultural collaboration (i.e. Aliverti  et al., 2019; Carrington, et al., 2016; Carrington, Goyes et al., 2019; Fonseca, 2018; Goyes, 2018;  Goyes and South, forthcoming; Lui, 2017; Travers, 2019; Walklate, 2016; Zaffaroni, 2015). Those who critique it as a project led by a bunch of Australians completely misunderstand how the southernizing of criminology pursues a series of practical decolonizing projects all over the world, involving hundreds if not thousands of scholars from a great many cultures, continents and languages. Many initiated by scholars in other languages, whose activities are rendered entirely invisible by these crude critiques. These projects create opportunities for border thinking and intercultural communication through real world conferences, discussion groups, open access journal publication, supporting scholars with southern criminology scholarships, mentoring, bi-lingual events and other collaborations. International conferences seeking to southernize criminology have been convened five times in Australia and twice in Latin America, both times with simultaneous translation, funded by QUT Centre for Justice. Recently the Centre of Criminology, University of Oxford co-hosted a multi-lingual conference with Universidad Nacional del Litoral, Argentina on Punishment in the Global Peripheries  and formed a discussion group on southernizing criminology. The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research has established formal links with universities in the global south as a practical commitment to bridging global divides and decolonizing criminology. Universities in Latin America have been at the forefront of developing southern epistemologies, criminologies and southern feminisms for decades (eg Lugones, Mignolo, Sozzo and Zafaroni, leading figures in these debates are all from Argentina). The Asian Criminological Society, has also been pioneering alternative knowledges to anglo-centric northern criminology since 2006 (Carrington, Goyes, et al., 2019).

Another practical form of decolonisation is citing and publishing in Open Access journals which disseminate knowledge outside the capitalist model that makes knowledge a commodity behind paywalls. Criminology Open  championed by Scott Jacques from Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University, Atlanta, is a practical illustration of how all of us can contribute to the democratisation of criminology, regardless of positionality or identity. This website provides open sources for students, academics and the public, and urges  ‘we must make our works freely available to everyone’.

The open access journal published by QUT Centre for Justice, International Journal for Crime Justice and Social Democracy, of which I am the founding editor, is dedicated to de-colonising and democratising knowledge through open access publishing, creative commons copyright ensuring authors retain their own intellectual property rights. It has:

  • 112 Editorial Board members from 22 countries, 2 Indigenous to Australia, one Pacific Islander and many multi-lingual members from Latin America, Asia and other parts of the global south and north.
  • 1230 authors from 60 countries have cited the Journal’s articles affiliated with 441 institutions around the world
  • contributing authors have come from 38 countries and 157 institutions
  • 10% of the published articles are about Indigenous/Aboriginal or First Nations Issues – one of the highest proportion in the world (Goyes and South, forthcoming)
  • publishes and funds early career researchers to do translations
  • publishes some articles in multiple languages

The democratisation of knowledge through open access publishing that is free to download and publish disrupts the profiteering of corporate publishing giants like Elsevier. Anyone in criminology can participate in the project of decolonising knowledge by supporting, citing, founding, and publishing in open access journals and modes of publication.

Unlike the negative decolonial projects (which have their place), the project of southernizing criminology does not set out to denigrate the contribution of metropolitan criminology– or to damn all criminologists as ‘racist’, ‘westerncentric’ ‘control freaks’ on some sort of ‘bandwagon’. Rather than creating divisions the projects of southern criminologies seek to bridge global divides precisely as form of a decolonial praxis in action.


Professor Kerry Carrington,

Email: Kerry.carrington@qut.edu.au

Project website: Home – Preventing Gender Violence (qut.edu.au)

Staff page with links to publications: QUT | Staff Profiles | Kerry Carrington

Images courtesy of author

Kerry Carrington took the photograph at the top of the article in Argentina in 2019. “It’s a mural painted by a survivor of domestic violence, it says ‘Break the Silence’. The research was done in Spanish with a team from Argentina. Here’s the link to the project and team”. https://research.qut.edu.au/pgv/


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