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Court rules that prisoners have the right to vote

Nick Bird

Should prisoners be entitled to vote? The European Court of Human Rights today ruled that by banning convicts from taking part in elections, Britain was in breach of Protocol 1 of the Convention on Human Rights. For the Government, Lord Falconer said the law would be reviewed, but he could not foresee extending the franchise to all prisoners.

I can already hear the howls of outrage from tomorrow's tabloids. (Incidentally, I can't help thinking that for all the praise lavished on the late Ronnie Barker in recent days, and the frequent citing of Porridge as one of the pinnacles of British comedy, if a similar programme were to be made today it would be roundly pilloried for showing prisoners in such a sympathetic light.)

The court's judgement prompts many thoughts about the prison system. To begin by stating what's obvious to most observers of British justice over the past twenty years - a number of the people currently in prison ought not to be there, either because of some miscarriage of justice or because it serves neither the prisoner nor society as a whole to keep them locked up.

Prison in modern society is both a very expensive way of dealing with crime and spectacularly ineffective in reforming criminals. It seems that many convicts who were not hardened criminals or drug addicts when they went in have become so by the time they leave, and the cycle of criminal activity is therefore reinforced.

But I want to look at a question that is sometimes neglected by those of us on the left - what should prisons be like? Of course, in a better society a lot of the causes of crime would be undermined - poverty, alienation, broken communities with no hope beyond the next lottery ticket. But even assuming we can make some progress towards that ideal, what role would prisons play?

I think it must be threefold. Firstly, to protect society from people who are considered to be a continuing risk - this may of course involve psychiatric treatment. Secondly, there is the element of punishment; the recognition that someone has transgressed what is acceptable behaviour, as reflected by democratic laws (reminder: I'm not talking about all current laws).

Thirdly, and ultimately most importantly, there is rehabilitation. This has been somewhat neglected in the current period, which has tended to follow John Major's maxim (you remember him, he used to run the country) that we should "condemn a little more, understand a little less." A more profoundly stupid thing has rarely been said, outside of the collected speeches of George W Bush.

Unless we subscribe to a fixed view of human nature then we must believe that people are capable of changing, and that once someone has served a prison sentence they should be given the chance to begin anew. How we treat people while they are in prison; how we equip them to re-emerge into society is crucial in determining whether this process is successful. Those who say prison is just about punishment are the ones who guarantee that the cycle of criminality remains unbroken.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said today that: "Prisoners should be given every opportunity to pay back for what they have done, take responsibility for their lives and make plans for effective resettlement and this should include maintaining their right to vote."

If the alternative is building ever more prisons at an escalating cost, with no apparent progress in deterring crime or rehabilitating prisoners, it's hard to disagree.


October 2005

This first appeared on five by five

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