24th Council of Europe Conference of Directors of Prison and Probation Services “Offender Management: Tradition and Technology”

21-22 May 2019, Cyprus



Dear Minister, Directors, professionals, colleagues,


George Westerman, a senior scholar at MIT formulated the first law of digital transformation:

“Technology changes quickly, but organisations change much more slowly.”

He argues that digital transformation is more of a leadership challenge than a technical one because human systems are very different from technological ones. It is relatively straightforward to replace software or an element in a machine but far more difficult to change an organisation.

We know that some countries are more advanced in introducing technology, including AI in their police, court and prison and probation systems, while others are still considering the different options in front of them.

How can prison and probation services benefit from digital transformation today and at the same time maintain the values of yesterday’s management and work practices? This is the question before us at this very timely Conference: “Offender Management: Tradition and Technology”.

You will have the opportunity to share knowledge and expertise on how to make best use of the rapidly developing new technologies and of the digital transformation which has already entered - at an incredible speed - all spheres of social life, including the criminal justice system. In fact, we are only beginning to realise the potential of AI which may become the biggest game-changer in human history.

Technology can be a very positive addition to all other tools used in prison and probation work but its use also bears a number of risks and pitfalls. As is the case for all its applications: AI is a precious collaborator, but an undesirable boss!

During these two days you will discuss how to make the best use of technology in your everyday work without losing the soul and ethics of your profession and service.

The novelist William Gibson, who invented the term “cyberspace”, once said: “Technologies are morally neutral until we apply them.”

Prison is a closed structure, widely unknown to society at large. Although probation deals with offenders in the community and by doing so is much more open to public scrutiny and interest, it still remains a zone of relatively scarce knowledge and understanding by the outside world.

The use of technology can also help enhance the transparency and hence the trust and recognition by society of the importance of the work you are doing.

A Canadian prison professional Robert Clark who has worked for more than 30 years in some of the strictest Canadian prisons, has written a book, describing how Canadian prisons changed in the course of the past years. He says and I quote:

“In the 1980s we used to patrol the areas like the prison yard, the weight room, the cell blocks and so on, on foot with a radio.

We’d interact with the prisoners; solve problems as best we could. Over time they’ve moved to a technology where prison doors are opened by an electronic button somewhere else in the prison. Supervision … is done through close-circuit cameras.”

He felt that  interaction between prison staff and prisoners has become less personal  and that more often force is used with difficult prisoners whereas in the past communication would have been tried first to talk them down.

Such a situation should be avoided by all means and that is why management and working methods need to be revised and modernised.

It is important to highlight that technology should be used in a way that contributes:

  • to improving the work of prison and probation staff by freeing more time for dynamic security, for training and for professional development;
  • to improving prison and probation material conditions and structural management and  by doing so, to improving safety, security and good order;
  • to improving the humane treatment, the feeling of justice, respect and trust among offenders;
  • to enhancing the autonomy, responsibility and self-discipline of offenders who are given the chance by using technological tools to organise their own everyday life, to take back the ownership of their decision-making;
  • to re-socialising and rehabilitating offenders who, by being trained to use modern technology, maintain contacts with the outside world and with their families in the first place and have better chances to (re)enter the labour market.

Providing access for offenders to new technologies should not pose security risks, if well managed and monitored - on the contrary it can help maintain good order, safety and security, reduce recidivism and facilitate rehabilitation.

AI may also help to ensure a better risk assessment of offenders; it can help prevent acts of aggression or suicide attempts; it can effectively combat smuggling of illicit objects in prison; it can help protect victims and so on.

The human factor is central and will remain and must remain central when using technology, technology cannot and must not replace the role of staff but should assist staff in their everyday work. It should help to free more quality time for interacting with offenders, so that their past offending behaviour becomes a life-changing moment.

Human contact and continuous everyday interaction can change another human being. A machine cannot.

Technology should replace the repetitive everyday tasks and should contribute to ensuring safety and security.

On 25 April 2019 the European Committee on Crime Problems (CDPC) adopted Guidelines regarding the recruitment, selection, education, training and professional development of prison and probation staff. I urge you to invest in staff training, because your staff need more and more knowledge and expertise, more social, psychological skills and more intercultural awareness.  

I invite you all to read the Guidelines, to translate and make use of them. They provide a lot of guidance and practical advice regarding the recruitment and retention of staff of the best quality and were developed with the active participation of the Confederation of European Probation (CEP) and of the European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services (EuroPris).

The 2018 edition of the Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics on Persons under the Supervision of Probation Agencies (SPACE II) will be published today and at 17h30 Prof Marcelo Aebi, whom you know well, will present some key findings and comparisons between prison and probation numbers and data.

The high-level Conference “Responses to Prison Overcrowding”, held in Strasbourg on 24 and 25 April 2019 brought together for the first time criminal law judges and prosecutors of the 47 Council of Europe member States and representatives of the Ministries of justice and of the prison and probation services. Its aim was to raise the awareness among the judiciary regarding the impact of their decisions and judgments on prison numbers, on the use of alternatives to custody and on public safety in general. All participants agreed that the judiciary, the legislators and the Ministries of Justice need to work together with the prison and probation services and to agree on long-term strategies for penitentiary and penal reforms. Ms Marjorie Bonn is here to present the conclusions and outcomes of the Conference.

Finally, let me thank the Cypriot hosts: the Minister, the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Department for the excellent organisation and warm welcome.

I wish you success!

Thank you for your attention!