Prisons to curb inmate extremism and organised crime using AI surveillance

Prisoners’ phone calls could soon be monitored by AI technology to prevent notorious criminals and terrorists offending from behind bars.

We’ve all seen the Netflix dramas and old cop shows that depict prison gangs as highly dangerous threats, but how do real life governments monitor the communication of inmates behind bars?

Not very well, apparently. Recorded warnings to inmates that phone calls are being ‘recorded and monitored’ inside conventional prisons has done little to scupper remote criminal operations across the US. Corrections officials still gather piles of incriminating information every year – and the problem remains significant.

Unsurprisingly most current prison resources are basic at best, but the technology used to prevent criminal activity could soon be in for a serious upgrade.

The Ministry of Justice has recently been talking up ground-breaking AI systems that have the potential to efficiently sift through the 64 million calls made from prison phones each year. They’ll be able to pinpoint the most dangerous inmates involved in organised crime rings and extremism, potentially revolutionising how the US monitors prison activity.

While current checks are handled by dedicated officers with headphones, tape recordings, and presumably an endless supply of cup soup, the machine learning tools being trialled have proved an instant success at filtering through hours of recordings and flagging suspicious interactions through trigger words and phrases – a process known as semantics analysis.

We’ve seen AI used in a similar manner on social media in an industry-wide effort to combat the spread of fascist content and cyberbullying online, but this marks the first instance that the tech has been employed to monitor interactions in a real life (albeit controlled) environment.

The AI program would also constantly run a live transcript function to record prisoners’ calls, building out a comprehensive database that could be accessed by other law enforcement agencies to investigate cases and thwart organised crime and radicalisation from the inside.

The massive frequency of prison calls with the old system meant that a meagre one in 50 prison calls were monitored live, but the hope is that as the AI technology becomes more widely available we can eventually stamp out nefarious activity like drug smuggling within prisons.

The law permits prison governors to record all designated or randomised calls excluding dialogues between an inmate and their lawyers, MPs, or officials case review commissions. However, the notion of having an ever-present eye and ear over the incarcerated population’s every move has flagged up ethical issues regarding privacy and quality of life, especially if AI becomes a mainstay going forward.

The tech is only in the trial stages right now, but people in prison activist circles are already concerned about the mental impact this relentless surveillance may have on inmates.

Additionally, these systems have the potential to create a financial disparity between the pre-trial inmates who can and can’t afford bail. Those who make bail can bide their time and address their case in private, whilst less wealthy inmates are forced to contend with round-the-clock inspection before their date in court.

Morality aside, it does appear that AI is likely to become a core of prison surveillance in the not- too-distant future. With the potential to reduce the cost of monitoring calls a thousand-fold, and to re-shuffle considerable manpower into other areas of prison management, this is an opportunity that seems a little too promising to pass up.

Money talks.

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