The principle legal and political arguments for extending the franchise to prisoners have been rehearsed elsewhere (jailhouselawyersblog.blogspot.com, passim). The practical benefits of such a development, the positive results that accrue, are less often discussed.
One fear that is paraded as a principled objection to prisoners voting is that we will exercise undue influence over MP's. The result, it seems, will be our demanding to be given the type of lifestyle that the tabloid press and more desperate MP's claim that we already enjoy.
In all but a very small number of constituencies the number of prisoners voting will amount to little more than a whisper in a gale. In some though, such as the Isle of Wight, then the preponderance of prisoners may well hold the balance of power between the political parties.
This is not to be feared; it will merely be the most extreme manifestation of one of the most important benefits that result from prisoners voting - to raise the issues of penology out of the political gutter. At present, very few MP's pay any attention to the prison in their constituency. Even fewer give thought to the prisoners and none that I know of ever hold surgeries.
This deliberate neglect of our concerns can hardly be divorced from the fact that prisoners do not yet exercise political influence. Once we have the franchise, MP's will doubtless take a sudden interest in prisons and prisoners. Whether this will have any practical effects on the landings must remain a mystery, but one benefit will be certain: MP's will gain an education into the realities of imprisonment.
The public atmosphere has for far too long been polluted by the mindless, uninformed belching of politicians who are desperate to grab the votes of the middle classes. In that cause, they happily pronounce in Parliament and scribble for the newspapers the most trite, banal and ignorant comments relating to prisoners and our conditions. Their knowledge of the reality is best described as feeble.
But with a prisoners franchise must come significant and sustained contact with prisoners and their conditions. In this sense, I feel that the franchise can only increase the sum of the general good. Politicians will feel constrained from indulging their ignorance as their appreciation of the prison system grows.
It follows from the increase in knowledge that issues relating to prisons that arise in Parliament may be debated with a quality previously unknown, and that the scrutiny they aim at the Ministry of Justice may be sufficient to ease the worst excesses of government stupidity that we labour under. The keen eye of the more active MP's may challenge the Prison Service to recall that they have citizens in their custody, and not merely the dispossessed.
We need not look to this grand political stage to see the advantages of political involvement. If MP's take an interest, even if out of political self-preservation, and make themselves available to address prisoners’ concerns then the effects could be felt on the landings. The shape that daily prison life takes could be altered. This is not going to be a case of every frustrated prisoner resorting to “I'll tell my MP” in the face of negative decisions. MP's are neither stupid nor puppets. But if MP's take up even some of the inconsistent decisions, abusive or degrading treatment, or plain stupid ideas with the Governor then the situation may alter.
Bit by bit, the involvement of prisoners in the political process may begin to recast the topology of power in prisons. Prisoners may - just may - grow a little faith in their own abilities to play a part in legitimate processes. For generations we have been forced to accept the idea that because we are allowed no responsibility, then we must be irresponsible. Prisoners rarely bought into this belief, but those who deigned to rise up to speak found that there were no forums in which to be heard.
With the vote there inevitably comes a small measure of responsibility. Prisoners can legitimately enquire why, if we are able to help decide the fate of governments, we are not given an opportunity to discuss or decide the myriad of small issues that comprise our daily lives? There is no answer to such a question, for the ability to vote marks the individual as a citizen, as a member of the society and as a capable human being.
And once prisoners grow comfortable in the clothing of responsibility, no one can predict how it will develop. A person who has spent his life with contempt for legitimate processes, who has been abandoned by the twists and turns of society, may find that he does have a place in the world.
These potential benefits are rarely discussed and their potential hardly developed. The debate around the prisoners’ right to vote is itself indicative of the contempt that can be fostered for a group that is politically dispossessed. The vote will change the terms of the debate. Nationally, it will help to hold government to account for the immeasurable waste of human life and purpose that comes with imprisonment. Locally, it forces politicians to face the daily reality of prisons and prisoners. And for society, it holds out the hope of reclaiming those who have until now been cast aside. What, then, is there to lose?