May 7th, 2012
If, like most of us, you take your knowledge of the prison system less from personal experience than from TV and movies (think anything from TheShawshankRedemption to the 1970s British sitcom Porridge), you might be surprised to talk to Jon Cumming. As Chief Information Officer of the Department of Corrections, Jon is leading a technology revolution where high-speed broadband is transforming the way offenders are dealt with. Is fast fibre crucial for prisons?
Absolutely, Jon says.
Take a prisoner’s first arrival in prison – or transfer from another prison. It’s vital, Jon says, that corrections officers have dependable access to the offender information management system. They need to know, for example, whether the offender is at risk of suicide, or shouldn’t be put with certain other prisoners (gang affiliates perhaps). In the past, unreliable dial-up speeds, particularly in out-of-the-way prisons meant such assessments weren’t always dependable.
Another huge step has been the use of audio-visual links between court rooms and prisons, allowing prisoners in some cases to “appear” in court via high quality video conference from a special room in prison. As well as being a huge saving of time and money (transport and waiting time), it also reduces the risk of violent incidents, like the one in 2006 where dangerous criminal George Baker murdered teenager Liam Ashley in a prison van. So far, there are video conference links in Auckland and the Waikato (the most recent is between the ManukauDistrictCourtandMtEdenCorrectionsFacility), and one is planned to go live soon in Christchurch. More are likely to follow, Jon says.
Other applications for fast broadband include staff at remote facilities being able to access new induction videos or other on-line training. And, in the future at least, fast fibre will allow probation and rehabilitation staff to do all the paperwork needed following a home visit remotely – saving tedious trips back to service centres to type up notes.
It hasn’t been easy. While connecting up Mt Eden prison might be simple – there are plenty of fat pipes in central Auckland – getting fast fibre to a site like Rangipo, south of Turangi, is challenging. Corrections’ answer was to outsource the nationwide contract to Telecom subsidiary Gen-i. Gen-i agreed to provide a certain level of network availability to each location (it has to be 99.99% at all prisons, but can be less at probation centres that service young offenders). How Gen-i achieves that target is up to the company – but it involves a mixture of fibre, copper and digital mobile radio.
What about Ultra-fast Broadband? Jon says the nationwide roll-out and increasing availability of bandwidth will gradually bring down the price, and allow the department to make use of more and more applications and innovation. Time, perhaps, for programme makers to look at making a new, high-tech prison drama.