How Mobile Data Collection Can Aid Prison Reform

There is a death inside an Indian prison every 5.5 hours. The suicide rate inside these institutions is 40 percent higher than that on the outside. 67 percent of those incarcerated in the country are awaiting trial, and as a result, prisons are severely overcrowded. There is one doctor for every 638 people in prison and one mental health professional for every 23,000.

While the list of injustices faced daily by those behind bars is endless, the lack of transparency makes it difficult to paint a holistic picture of how the system operates and how individual lives are impacted. The closed nature of prisons makes it easier for abuse to go unnoticed and unattended. Developing a more open system is a critical step to improving prison conditions and protecting prisoners’ rights, and technology and data have the potential to play an instrumental role in facilitating this process.

You cannot change what you cannot see. Data serves as a window, providing observers with an objective view of a given situation. Technology solutions, such as CommCare, allow those on the frontlines to easily record data that can be used to empower policymakers, activists, advocates, and change agents with the information they need to move systems forward. Together with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), we outline below three ways that mobile data collection tools can be used to improve transparency and conditions in prisons.



1. Tracking of Legal Aid Services in Prisons

Early access to legal counsel is one of the most critical buffers against torture, ill treatment, forced confessions, and illegal detention. While the jurisprudence guaranteeing access to legal aid in India is rich, and there are several schemes in place to ensure people in prisons have easy access to lawyers, in practice, many fall through the cracks. CHRI’s work across the country shows that there are delays in access to legal services, lack of interaction between legal aid lawyers and their clients, an overall dearth of effective representation, and an absence of record keeping regarding who is receiving legal aid and who is being overlooked.

Mobile data collection solutions can assist in bridging these gaps by enabling effective coordination between prisons and legal aid institutions. By effectively tracking legal aid delivery through the ecosystem, users can learn who is receiving aid and the quality of legal services being rendered; all with the aim of ensuring effective representation before courts and thus equal access to justice for all. Additionally, these solutions can facilitate the submission and tracking of legal aid applications, ensure the intimation of appointment of legal aid lawyers reach the prison, provide timely updates on progress in cases, and track appearances of lawyers in court hearings as well as visits to prisons by lawyers to interact with the clients.


2. Prison Monitoring

In recognition of the issues associated with the closed nature of prison systems, India like many other countries has set in place safeguards which mandate the regular inspection of jails by government officials, civil society members, and judicial officers. These visits are meant to ensure that all rules and regulations are adhered to. However, in practice, we see that these monitoring mechanisms have become perfunctory, and prisons are not being monitored as planned by law. Lack of oversight and monitoring thus leads to inhumane and unhygienic conditions, promoting high incidence of torture and abuse. Lack of proper training and access to relevant information means that visitors assigned to monitor prisons do not fully understand their role. Neither are they aware of what they should look at during prison visits, nor do they know what remedial action they can take following the visits. Mobile applications have the potential to assist with these barriers.

By developing in-app training modules, one could standardize and proliferate training materials, and as CHRI has previously demonstrated, training visitors leads to a major increase in the number and quality of visits, thus improving prison conditions. These tools have the power to standardize the information obtained during visits, providing visitors with a set of forms they can complete on various aspects of prison life. This would aid assessment of prison conditions across different prisons, thus aiding policy decisions on improving prison conditions.


3. Monitoring Medical Facilities

There is an inadequate number of medical officers in prisons, which means that prison doctors are often overburdened and cannot provide satisfactory care. Furthermore, prisons are not always equipped with necessary medical facilities, due to which they often become breeding grounds for infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis and HIV.

Mobile data collection could help to track medical facilities in prisons – the presence of medical officers, maintain inventory on medical supplies, visits by medical officers, physicians and psychiatrists, and availability of ambulances for transport of prisoners to nearby hospitals in case of emergency. Solutions such as CommCare already have a proven record of tracking and storing critical health data, thus empowering front line health workers with relevant information. This can easily be adapted for a penitentiary setting, ensuring proper medical care for peoples in prisons.


High-quality data is an essential tool in sketching an accurate portrait of how a system operates and where it falters. While the limited data available on prisons today paints an ugly picture, we can hope that technological innovations can assist the reforms process, leading to a more humane prison system.



The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent, non-governmental, non-profit organization headquartered in New Delhi, with offices in London, United Kingdom and Accra, Ghana. CHRI works for the practical realization of human rights across Commonwealth countries. It has specialized in the areas of Access to Justice (Police and Prison Reforms) and Access to Information for over two decades. It has special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and is recognized for its expertise by governments, oversight bodies and civil society. It is registered as a society in India.

Dimagi, founded in 2002 out of MIT’s Media Lab, is a software social enterprise that develops technologies to improve service delivery in underserved communities. Dimagi operates on the belief that enabling high-quality mobile solutions at scale can impact millions of people’s lives by transforming frontline programs’ ability to deliver high-value services at the last mile. Active in 60+ countries, Dimagi’s technology platform, CommCare, and services have supported 500+ projects and hundreds of diverse partners, including governmental ministries, the United Nations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, Google, Microsoft, Dannon, Novartis, GE, Intel, GlaxoSmithKline, World Bank, NIH, MIT, Harvard and many others.



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