Monday, June 11, 2012
The Benefits of Prisoners Voting
Amidst the heat and waffle generated by the Prisoners Voting case, there has been a dearth of argument regarding the practical benefits of implementing this judicial decision. In ignoring the judgement the Government has already taught us that ignoring laws we don't like is apparently a moral and just thing to do; but then as criminals we hardly need another bunch of pseudo-crims to preach that particular lesson. Unlike the Government, at least most criminals have the honest decency not to try to dress up their misdeeds in a cloth of obfuscation and deceit!
Rather, it has always been my strong belief that instituting the prisoner's franchise can have positive practical consequences, as well as the democratic and moral imperative of inclusive citizenship. It is these practical benefits that have been ignored for far too long.
It is, I hope, a given that the debate around imprisonment is often trite and invariably rather ill informed. Those who avoid these pitfalls tend to be "insiders", but they have an audience limited to other "insiders". Amongst the wider media and in Parliament the debate is debilitated not only by a lack of information and understanding but by being hijacked by those with the most strident voices.
There is an institutionalised neglect of prisoners in the political process. Not only are we denied the vote, we are denied any voice, any input into discussions which profoundly effect us both as prisoners and as members of society, susceptible as all others to perturbations to the economic and social life (and should anyone feel the urge at this point to claim that prisoners are not members of society, can I ask them to stop taxing us please?). As most Government consultation papers - including the one on our voting rights - are only published online, that it is only within the last few months that these have been made available to us only highlights the depth of this neglect.
And it is on this point that our having a vote could have the greatest impact. In instituting the prisoner's franchise then MPs would have an interest in reversing their refusal to visit this particular constituency. Firstly, the perpetual vote-grabbing quest. In reality, any franchise involving prisoners will be so manipulated as to have only a marginal effect, regardless of the proportion of voters prisoners comprise in any constituency. Nevertheless, a vote is a vote and MPs may be forced to tout around their local nick.
Secondly, there is a certain moral and possibly legal duty on MPs to make themselves available to all constituents. Given the difficulties that prisoners have with travelling, I don't think that it is too great a burden for MPs to hold the occasional constituency surgery within their local prison.
And therein lays the benefits of prisoners voting. For whilst most MPs will, at one time or another, pop in for a cup of tea with the Governor, they sail past prisoners with a disinterest that is breathtaking. They learn nothing and teach nothing, such meetings being nothing more than the mutual appreciation that exists between all State functionaries with gold-plated pensions. MP's knowledge of prisons and prisoners is marginal and extremely partial and this is reflected in the shockingly poor level of debate within the political class.
In being enticed - or forced - to enter prisons and hear the concerns of their new constituents, MPs will receive an education in penology that will shock most of them. They will discover the sheer waste of human life, the squandered money, the ineffectual management and paralysed policy-making machinery. I doubt that a single one would leave their first surgery without being subjected to the thought, "this must change."
At a bare minimum, then, enforcing the prisoners franchise would increase the knowledge from which MP's debate. And that, surely, can only lead to better quality legislation as MPs begin to see through the mendacious and obfuscatory waffle that they are presently fed by Prison Ministers.
Prisoners should have the right to vote for many reasons. As a route to inform policy makers and to challenge the Executive is the reason which, I would hope, very few could disagree with.
Labels: prisoner vote