March 16, 2015

Irish Times Innovation Awards 2015

Irish Times 16 March 2015

Three survivors of round one make it to finals of IT and Telecoms category

Belfast-based Core Systems has developed a secure platform through which offenders in prison can directly and securely access information and services to which they are entitled.

Direct2inmate can be operated using an ATM-style kiosk or through tablet devices. It is designed specifically for use within secure environments such as prisons.

“We have been working with prisons for 15 years providing security devices such as locks, locking systems, doors and biometrics,” says marketing executive Emer O’Kane. “We got to know a lot about how prisons are run during that time. We also saw a shift in focus away from pure incarceration and more towards reform and rehabilitation.”

O’Kane points out that a lot of things that happen in prisons do so because the secure environment which the prison authorities wish to create.

“For example, if a prisoner wants to know when their next visit is due, they have to ask a prison officer, who then has to go to an office, look up the prisoner’s record on the computer, find the visit, write it down somewhere and then go back and find the prisoner and give them the information.

“This takes up a lot of time, when the officer should be keeping order and keeping the prisoners and staff safe. It can also be very frustrating for the prisoner. What happens if the officer is delayed for some reason and the visit is due in half an hour? They could end up missing a visit just because of the way the system works.”

Direct2inmate allows prisoners to access information like this for themselves, making the whole process more efficient and less frustrating.

“It has been designed in a way that the only change involved is for the prisoner,” O’Kane says.

“Prison authorities are naturally very risk-averse, and it is important not to change their systems. All jails have jail management systems, and we don’t change them in any way. All our system does is access them.”

The self-service system was first made available through kiosk-based computers.

“These were located on prison landings, the common areas shared by the prisoners,” she says. “However, as usage of the system grew, this could lead to queues and this is not necessarily a good thing in a prison environment.

“The only solution was to offer the system on a personal device such as a TV or a tablet. We developed a way to make the tablets as secure as the kiosk.”

The system monitors and records every keystroke and all services accessed by users. The tablets are also controlled remotely and their availability can be managed centrally. For example, good behaviour can be rewarded through extra time on them.

In addition, the system can be used for managing prison pay, with prisoners being able to order goods from the prison shop using them. There is also an important educational dimension.

“Educational services can be delivered through secure apps on the device,” O’Kane says. “In much the same was as people can access Open University courses at home, prisoners are able to sign in to a secure portal and access courses through a bespoke app.

“All the apps are designed to empower prisoners and to reduce the risk of re-offending after release.”

The very presence of the technology in the jails will help in this regard.

“It is estimated that prisons are between five and seven years behind the outside world when it comes to technology,” O’Kane says. “Prisoners need to upskill if they want to get a job or voluntary work when they are released, and the system helps with that. They can also use it to help find a place to stay when they get out.

“Quite frequently prisoners are released from jail with a small amount of money in their pocket and directions to the nearest bus stop; no thought is given to where they are going to sleep that night. This can lead to prisoners simply going back to the people they associated with before they went to jail and re-offending as a result.”

The system is already in use in the US and Northern Ireland and, with 10 million prisoners in jail worldwide, the market opportunity for it is very large indeed. However it cannot be marketed in a traditional wide-scale fashion.

“Because of the environment we sell into,” O’Kane says, “it has to be marketed on a one-to-one basis. We are developing relationships with prison operators around the world, and that is how we will grow sales in future.”

Diana Atchison Business Development Manager and Emer O'Kane Marketing Executive