Comment: Giving prisoners the vote is the right step

The treatment of Britain’s prisoners has been ignored for too long. Giving them the vote is a first step to instilling citizenship.

By Frances Crook

As far as prisoners go, I want people in prison to be given responsibilities and be asked to take responsibility.

Voting is one way that people exercise their citizenship and prisoners too are citizens. We infantilise prisoners, treating grown up men inside as if they were small children who are not allowed to decide what they wear, what they do or make any contribution to the running of their lives.

This is counter-productive and being engaged as citizens is one of the ways people can be prepared for release so they can lead crime-free lives and be positive citizens back in the community. One of the hallmarks of citizenship is the right to vote. If we want prisoners to return safely to the community, feeling they have a stake in society, then the right to vote is a good means of engaging individuals with the responsibilities of citizenship.

The government, this one and the last one, should obey the law. Once a court has made a judgment, it should be followed. Governments are the first to argue that we cannot pick and choose the laws we obey, so it is a bit rich that governments have tried to avoid following the court ruling make more than five years ago to give prisoners the vote. What message does it send to prisoners, when the government refuses to abide by a court ruling? It matters not one jot whether the court is in London or Strasbourg, the law is still the law.

Representation and taxation and should ideally go hand in hand. We understand the government is still looking at excluding some prisoners from voting, in particular prisoners serving sentences of four years or more.

One way the government could enfranchise this group would be to link their plans to make long sentenced prisoners work and pay tax developing a relationship between the prisoner and the state. Few prisoners have ever had a true, legitimate employment experience, nor any feeling of real citizenship. The prisoner has a responsibility to the employer and to the state, and then of course the state has responsibilities to them.

Denied a meaningful wage, representation and legal employment rights, prison work links more with exploitative punishment than reward, and as such does little to challenge offending behaviour. Encouraging prisoners to participate in society, reinforce the work ethic and provide the broader aspects of gainful employment in prison such as social status, social interaction, career progression all make for better resettlement.

And finally, the impact may be greater on politicians than on prisoners. If councillors and MPs know they will get votes by paying attention to what happens inside prisons, and most importantly what happens when people are released, they are more likely to pay attention to prisons. It matters to everyone what happens inside prisons and to prisoners when they are dumped back on to the streets with enough money for one week but two weeks until they get any benefits, with nowhere to live, and with their drug/alcohol habit intact. Politicians, local and national, should pay much more attention to this, and if giving prisoners the vote triggers this attention then it is worth it and we will all benefit.

Frances Crook is the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

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