Unilink Technology Services (UTS), part of Unilink Group, provides services that help rehabilitation in prisons by enabling prisoners to keep in touch with friends and family.
UTS was founded in 2006 by Derek Jones, an ex-offender, who while in prison was frustrated that his family could not communicate with him effectively. Email-a-prisoner (emap), UTS's main product, enables users, typically the friends and family of prisoners, to send messages which are received by prisoners in under twenty-four hours. Mail by comparison is slow which can lead to relationships breaking down. Hence our product, after overcoming many hurdles, was warmly received.
Another important facet is that emap reduces the normal post received by each prison. Prisoner mail has to be opened and checked for money or drugs and so emap is well received in prisons because it cuts this workload since contraband cannot be delivered. The service is free to prisons. In today's difficult financial environment it is important that it is free to the prison and that it helps them to operate. But it is important to Unilink that we keep the price down: 35p for a one way message and 55p for two-way because our users are not well-off.
We also provide special offers at Christmas and other such occasions which is a difficult time for people with family in prison. Some are using technology for the first time and it is also vital that our helpdesk is able to assist people, some of whom will be using a computer for the first time.
With the support of our users Unilink won two awards before being awarded with the Queens Award for Enterprise in Innovation: the Digital Leaders Best Citizen Service and the overall award as the UK Digital Leader (2015). This award was the result of a combination of around 10,000 votes from friends and family users combined with the judging panels assessment.
The challenges we have had to overcome include security, concerns about the costs, concerns about foreign languages, viruses and how to handle replies. This service is offered by a few suppliers in the world but Unilink has innovated to provide an enhanced service including a wide range of additional functions. Unilink continuous investment in the service has led to a significant increase in the number of messages to around 1.5 million per annum today in 98% of all UK prisons.
Innovations include: Two means of replies: paper or electronically through self-service kiosks. In most prisons there are no electronic services for prisoners so the messages are sent daily in one encrypted file which is printed out and delivered manually. A barcode is printed onto those messages for the reply which allows the prisoner to create a handwritten reply which is automatically scanned back to the sender. This way a secure connection is established between prisoner and user which prevents the prisoner sending unwanted messages.
In HMP Kilmarnock messages are delivered to the self-service kiosks where prisoners login with a fingerprint to receive their mail and carry out self-service functions. Replies are also enabled through the kiosks. Unilink developed an external web service through which all messages are sent and parsed for suspicious keywords and key phrases automatically and those that are suspicious are held for inspection; there is a database of approximately 2,000 such words and phrases.
The prison officers have many options to control inbound and outbound messages thus ensuring that security is not compromised. All such communication is carried out over the criminal justice secure mail (CJSM) which ensures that messages are kept private and not intercepted. Messages can be sent to prisoners in foreign languages and we have created an automatic free machine translation option so that messages are translated on request.
SMS txts from mobiles are also supported. Enhanced management functions enable prison officers to view message statistics, review message history in special cases, gather information on irregular activities. This product is our main service and the business is dependent upon it but we are also looking to expand our payment service and add a video-visitation service. The main aim is to expand prisons take up of the electronic emap service which has proved to be very successful.