Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Prisons and the vote

Norm discusses the disenfranchisement of prisoners and wonders why those who advocate giving inmates the vote seem to rarely put forward a clear case. Leaving aside the notions that prisoners are still human beings and citizens and that there is often an arbitrary division between custodial and non-custodial sentences, I would make two observations in support of the enfranchisement of offenders drawn from my experience working in a lifelong learning department that provided higher education in prisons.

The first is that prisoners are directly and intimately affected by decisions of the state and thus should have a say in their own representation. This is not just as a result of penal policy either.

For example, in 1997 the new Labour government introduced a very welcome funded fee remission scheme for low income students in part-time higher education. The money was managed by the universities' hardship funds and allowed the allocation of fee support to offender learning in prisons. Then, for some unknown reason, the government switched the allocation of funding from universities to local authorities. This created the usual short-term muddle out of a perfectly good system, but it also had another consequence. Prisoners do not have a local authority to apply to for support. Thus a, possibly unintended, effect of the change was the ending of inmates' access to some educational programmes. Prisoners are not a fashionable cause and, crucially, they are not voters. It makes it easy to overlook their needs.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is the issue of prison as something other than a system of retribution. Giving rights to prisoners may have wider social benefits.

Our experience in Hull was that those who were involved in our courses had a far lower rate of re-offending than the national average. Academically, many were amongst our highest achievers, but I think there is more to it than that. One thing that engagement in education did was aid in a process of social re-integration. Social exclusion and political exclusion walk hand-in-hand. The exercise of political rights is one small part of citizenship, of inclusion. It is that very social inclusion that is a key element in preventing recidivism.

These utilitarian points aside, I also liked the impassioned speech given at last year's presentation night by the person who accepted the awards on behalf of our students who were otherwise detained. He said that, "whether we liked it or not, prisoners were part of our community". They are and I see no reason why they should be excluded from the rights and duties of citizenship whilst deprived of their liberty.

No comments: