Paul Vallely: Populist, illiberal and sickmaking

Denying prisoners the vote gives them a strong signal that we have no interest in their rehabilitation
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The Independent Online

The prospect of David Cameron continuing to peddle his brand of illiberal populism makes me feel physically ill. No need for such violent language, I hear you chide. Indeed. That is pretty much what I thought when the Prime Minister said that his gorge literally rose at the idea that Britain might be forced to give the vote to people in prison. I don't suppose he paused to wonder what those in jail might feel when they heard his vomit-inducing words.

Who cares what prisoners think? Not many of our elected representatives, to judge by the overwhelming vote – 234 against just 22 – when MPs were asked to vote on a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Britain is wrong in its present blanket ban on prisoners voting.

It does not help that the test case on the issue was taken to Strasbourg by an ex-convict called John Hirst, who killed his landlady with an axe while on parole from a two-year burglary sentence, bludgeoning her seven times before calmly making a cup of coffee. At his trial, the judge described him as "an arrogant and dangerous person with a severe personality defect". In 35 years behind bars he became Britain's most litigious prisoner. On television, he comes across as both sinister and smug.

But hard cases make bad law. We should not predicate the way we live, or make law, on the most extreme cases. We should consider what is best for us as a society overall. And on this issue the House of Commons got it shockingly, but totally unsurprisingly, wrong.

Europe complicated the issue. The very word is a red rag to the bulwarks of Little England. The European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the EU, but the mere mention of Strasbourg was enough to set the crankometer whirring with bombast about "unelected judges" – as though we have a different kind in the UK – and calls for Britain to pull out of the court, which was set up at the suggestion of Winston Churchill in 1949 to protect Europe against the kind of human rights abuses inflicted on the Continent by the Nazis.

Certainly odd was the court's suggestion that the right to vote should only be withdrawn where the crime warranted it, which sounded reminiscent of the hypothecated barbarity of chopping off the hand of a thief.

Yet all this was peripheral. The MPs' overwhelming vote revealed something profoundly misconceived about British attitudes to prison. Prison is to punish and to reform, as we blithely parrot on those rare occasions when we are forced to think about crime and punishment. But generally we want to lock up the issue and throw away the key, much as we do with our prisoners.

There is a short-term satisfaction in that. It gives vent to our outrage over the impact of crime upon innocent victims. The Commons debate did something similar, with rhetoric that was as tub-thumpingly loud as it was intellectually shallow. It is an emotional form of retribution, much as was the odious Mr Hirst's application to the European Court in the first place, as we saw from his self-satisfied smirking appearance on Andrew Neil's Daily Politics.

But there is long-term cost to such catharsis. Almost two-thirds of prisoners commit another crime within two years of leaving jail. Prison may work as a punishment, but it fails spectacularly in reducing re-offending. This is because it treats criminals as passive – people to whom things are done – rather than reforming them into individuals equipped to take charge of their own lives. They are "doing time" rather than being changed. Worse, prison increases a lack of responsibility among inmates. Discipline is external, when what they need is to learn self-discipline. There have been a few pilot projects showing what can be done to change this, but they remain exceptions.

There is nothing soft about such options. Crime is caused by people who are alienated from mainstream social values. Prisoners are 13 times as likely to have been in care as a child than the rest of us. They are 13 times more likely to have been unemployed, 10 times more likely to have truanted from school and five times more likely to have been on benefits.

What prison should be trying to do is reduce the prisoners' sense that they live on the margins of society. Prisons should not be dustbins of enforced druggie idleness; they should be places where inmates are required to work a full eight-hour day, acquiring the disciplines and skills and standards they will need when they return to society. They need more education and thinking skills programmes, undisrupted by constant internal prisoner transfers to cope with the ever more overcrowded prison population.

They need more behavioural treatment programmes, more purposeful activity for prisoners, with less time spent idle in a cell. They need greater parity of rehabilitative programmes across Britain's penal institutions. They need to find new ways of increasing ties between prisoners and their families – a key indicator on whether they will go off the rails when they get out.

Lifting the ban on voting is an important symbolic indicator of the intention to heal the fractured relationship between society and offender. We should not naively suppose that voting will turn criminals into good citizens. But making them good citizens may make them want to vote. Refusing them the vote only hammers home what they already believe: that normal social rules do not apply to them. "If you tell people they're not part of society," one former convict said the other day, "there's another society that will welcome them with open arms: it's called the criminal fraternity."

Restoring the right to vote would emblematically renegotiate the balance between the rights of society and the rights of the individual. It would have a positive impact on the processes of reform and rehabilitation. And it would restore to prisoners some sense that they are the authors of their own transformation. The right to vote is not a moral reward, but a tool of the psychological realignment that precedes rehabilitation and prevents future crime.

Practical objections can be overcome. Large prison populations need not sway the outcome of local elections; prisoners could be registered to vote at their old home address. Prisoners voting might have other beneficial effects. At present, there is no incentive for MPs to consider the problems faced by prisoners – increasing rates of suicide and drug use or unemployment and homelessness on release. If prisoners had the vote, politicians would be forced to take more interest in such issues, and that would itself have the effect of reducing the spurs to reoffending.

We could, of course, go the opposite way, saying, as many states do in America, that convicts lose the right to vote for life. We could end up like Florida, where nearly a third of black men cannot vote. We could cruise towards social disintegration and even higher crime. But it would make David Cameron feel a little less physically sick, if only for a while.

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