by Nathan Morley
NICOSIA, May 22 (Xinhua) -- A conference of directors of prison and probation services of the Council of Europe on Wednesday discussed new technologies in the management of suspects and offenders.
A key issue at the meeting, held in the Cypriot coastal resort of Ayia Napa, was the ongoing development of artificial intelligence and of new technologies which could be applied in prisons and correction facilities in Europe.
In an interview with Xinhua, Jan Kleijssen, director of Information Society and Action against Crime of the Council of Europe, explained how artificial intelligence could monitor vulnerable prisoners at risk of suicide.
"There are many applications. For example, cameras combined with artificial intelligence can recognize patterns of behavior. This can be extremely useful to help in the observation -- such as measuring heartbeat and respiration -- and setting off an alert if something goes wrong," Kleijssen said.
"Artificial intelligence is a precious collaborator, it's not to replace humans with machines, it's to make sure that humans get the best possible assistance," he added.
Dominik Lehner, chair of the Council for Penological Co-operation, outlined other areas where artificial intelligence could have a pioneering role.
"Outside of Europe there is the use of robots instead of prison staff, but that's not what we are speaking about," Lehner told Xinhua. "We are mainly speaking about the allocation of cells -- artificial intelligence algorithms can help to compose the prison population -- who with who - and in which cell for example."
Kleijssen's work involves everything related to criminal law in the 47-member Council of Europe.
Other issues discussed included violence in correction facilities, the management of the execution of sentences, confidentiality, and data protection.
Kleijssen explained how overcrowding - seen as one of the biggest problems facing prisons across Europe - not only gives less space to inmates; but is responsible for the overstretching of prison staff.
"In many European countries -- though, I should stress, not in all -- we have a problem of overcrowding, which is not conducive to good and sound prison management. It's one of the reasons that violence may erupt; suicide in prison is another issue, linked to overcrowding. Every suicide is one too many."
Across Europe, prisons face a number of long-standing challenges -- one of the leading issues being the high percentage of foreign nationals held in some jails, which increases difficulties for prison authorities.
"Think about language barriers for instance, and cultural differences as well," Kleijssen explained. "There are countries like Spain and Italy that have a very high percentage of foreign nationals, and when I say high percentage, I mean more than 50 percent of detained persons."
"This, of course, comes, in addition, the abnormal position of a person being locked up," he said.