There is a solution to Britain's appalling prison conditions. Allow inmates to vote

If prisoners could vote, MPs would become as clued up on the local nick as they are on the local hospital
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The Independent Online

If any British politician tries to make a sane point about law-and-order, he can expect to be publicly flayed as a paedophile-loving, Huntley-hugging maniac. Charles Kennedy is the latest liberal to be lynched by the right-wing press. This week, he stands accused of "crazy political correctness" and "being soft on murder".

If any British politician tries to make a sane point about law-and-order, he can expect to be publicly flayed as a paedophile-loving, Huntley-hugging maniac. Charles Kennedy is the latest liberal to be lynched by the right-wing press. This week, he stands accused of "crazy political correctness" and "being soft on murder".

So what "madness" has he advocated? The Liberal Democrat leader said prisoners should not be stripped of their basic right to vote. That's it. This is a totally mainstream policy across Europe, taken for granted even by conservative parties from Bosnia to Ireland to Spain. Indeed, by kicking prisoners off the electoral register, Britain is part of a minority of developed countries, huddled in a damp corner with Vladimir Putin's Russia and George Bush's America. But - hey! - who cares about joining the civilised world where there is a hint of liberal blood in the water?

Out here in the real world, Kennedy's proposals are a smart idea. One of the great failures of the current Labour government has been its prison policy. Under New Labour, Britain's prison population has swollen to a level unimaginable even a decade ago, with 75,000 people banged up as you read this. It's one of the biggest prison populations in the world. Overcrowding is now epidemic: a quarter of our prisoners are jammed with another convict into cells designed to hold only a single person.

This has a simple consequence: as Frances Cook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, puts it, "Overcrowded, underfunded prisons are not rehabilitating prisons." Jails should be equipping prisoners with the skills to get jobs and stop offending, but overcrowded jails (and I've visited a few) simply become warehouses for ever-angrier, ever-more- criminal offenders. The result? A fat majority of prisoners - 60 per cent - reoffend within two years, and the figure rises to 74 per cent for young men. Imagine if schools or hospitals had a similar failure rate. The failure of our prisons isn't just bad for their inmates; it makes us all more likely to be victims of crime.

So what has this got to do with giving prisoners access to the ballot box? There are two men who can best explain the connection.

James Pearson is a prisoner who went to the High Court to fight for his right to vote under the Human Rights Act. He explained, "The ban on prisoners voting means MPs do not have to pay attention to prisons and the issues raised by prisoners. This leads to issues like the poor state of healthcare for prisoners being ignored. I accept that prisoners must be punished, but I cannot accept that it is just for me to die in custody, or to be denied the democratic rights of everyone else in our society."

This view is confirmed by a man who has seen the Prison Service from the opposite end - the former Home Secretary Douglas Hurd. He saw when he was in office that there was almost no pressure on him to improve prison conditions, except his own conscience. Few MPs would raise the issue, and even fewer voters. He says, "If prisoners had the vote, MPs would take a good deal more interest in prisons and making them better."

Our prisons are so bad because there is no electoral incentive for politicians to make them better. The vast majority of us will never see the inside of a prison; it is the most invisible part of the public sector, and the least scrutinised. The only way to put jail conditions on to the political agenda is to let prisoners vote.

At the next general election, 40 marginal constituencies in Britain will have prisons in them. Look, for example, at a seat like Dorset South, which has been held by the Tories with a majority of just 77 but has a prison population of 1,416. If prisoners could vote, MPs in seats like that would quickly start harassing the Home Secretary over jail conditions. Parliamentary candidates would see the inside of a prison - many of them for the first time. They would become as clued up on the local nick as they are on the local hospital.

Ah, but isn't that exactly what we want to avoid? Do we really want MPs haggling to get more snooker tables and less time in bang-up for prisoners?

In fact, surveys of prisoners show that their demands would not be for extra "treats". Their biggest gripe with the jail system is that they find it very hard to stay in touch with their families. There are 150,000 children right now who are separated from an imprisoned parent, and the average distance of a prisoner from her family is 53 miles. Nearly half of all prisoners lose touch with their relatives when they go inside. And - crucially - giving prisoners regular access to their families would be good for all of us.

The Prison Reform Trust has conducted detailed research that discovered one of the most effective ways to prevent reoffending was to make sure that close family bonds were maintained. Prisoners who stayed close to their children and their partners were much less likely to walk back through the jail doors a second time.

So if prisoners got the vote, they would demand not simply "softer" but more effective jails. Bad jails mean more crime; good jails promote rehabilitation, which is in the interests of prisoner and society alike.

If you want a neat illustration of this principle, look at the second biggest demand prisoners have. They complain they don't have access to good drug rehab, good job training and the opportunity to find housing for when they are released. There's no conflict of interest here between prisoners and the rest of us: we should all want these improvements, because they drive down crime. If you really care about the victims of crime, you have to choose the policy that will create fewer of them - not the one that simply indulges our own rage.

Yet the conservative press tries to keep us all in a frenzied state of fear and loathing, constantly awaiting the next mugging and poised to shoot the next burglar. Thankfully, the evidence suggests they are not succeeding - Britain remains much more liberal than the press suggests. A major Mori poll conducted for Rethinking Crime and Punishment last year found that just 11 per cent of us believe putting yet more prisoners in jail and treating them harshly is the best way to spend the Home Office budget. Instead - even after all the propaganda - the British public want to spend the cash on drug treatment and prescription, constructive activities for young people, promoting parenting skills, and greater discipline in schools.

But instead of capitalising on this inchoate public mood, the Labour Party still makes blood-sacrifice after blood-sacrifice to these right-wing totems. Yesterday, a snarling Alan Milburn joined the assault on Kennedy with a staggeringly vicious attack on the Liberal Democrat leader's "political correctness".

Never forget: there is a calm, smart alternative to this hysteria - a way to really, truly, deeply reduce crime. Ignore the right-wing screaming, Charles - you are speaking for Britain's silent liberal majority.

johannhari@yahoo.co.uk

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