Voting for a distraction


Posted on: 14 February 2011 by Alexander Hay

We should ask what prisons are for first and whether their inmates should vote second.

Last Thursday, Parliament voted against allowing prisoners to vote in elections, in the wake of a controversial decision by the European Court of Human Rights. This means deadlock between the British government and the court it helped found – it may be some time before we see a resolution.

Needless to say, the tabloid coverage has been hysterical, and one right-wing think tank has gone so far as to call for Britain to withdraw from the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights that founded the ECHR.

Elsewhere, a Lib Dem MP has called for the blanket ban to be lifted altogether. Suffice to say, the issue is controversial.

There are strong arguments on both sides, of course. Prisoners show great cheek moaning that they are being denied their rights by a society whose rules they have broken. On the other hand, many prisoners are also marginalised from that society - anything that lets them participate in it more might at the very least lessen their alienation.

But as is the case for most public controversies, this is a smokescreen for a bigger question - what are prisons actually for? Punishment? Rehabilitation? Or containment?

We've all heard the folk myths that prisons are like holiday camps, though sharing a cell with a burglar and a mentally ill drug addict is probably not anyone's idea of Butlin's. On the other hand, the rate of re-offending is shockingly high, as is the lack of training, psychiatric care and provision of basic skills to often barely literate, disturbed inmates. Educated, well-adjusted people do not, as a rule, break the law.

The fault lies with our politicians. While it makes for good copy when home secretaries and their shadows swear bloody vengeance on criminals with the same old 'get tough' rhetoric, this same political class starves the prison and probation services of the funds, facilities and leadership they need to rehabilitate those who will respond to help, or enough places to, at the very least, keep our criminal classes 'occupied' and away from the streets. Their sentencing guidelines, meanwhile, are either too harsh or too lenient, undermining any chance for proportionate deterrence.

Perhaps we need to accept that jail is the place where the most violent, dangerous and unpleasant criminals should go to be miserable, the rest forced to serve their communities instead, safely away from prisons that just make them worse, and that mentally ill criminals should actually get treatment for once. But that would require a certain degree of courage and imagination, and today's self-defeating rhetoric about crime prevents craven politicians from doing this.

Instead we have a system that fails to prevent crime or reform criminals. In every sense it is useless. By definition, letting criminals vote is something of a sideshow to a far greater crisis.

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Alexander Hay

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