‘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