One cheer for votes for prisoners

Giving prisoners the vote is right, argues Richard Garside. But it far from the most pressing challenging affecting the prison system.

By: 
Richard Garside
Date: 
Thursday, 04 November, 2010

For those who still doubt that Andrew Neil is, at heart, a deeply unpleasant man, take a look at his BBC ‘interview’ of a couple of days ago with former prisoner John Hirst.

Ostensibly a discussion of the rights and wrongs of prisoners getting the vote, Neil turned it into a nasty, shock-jock attack. If former prisoners are to be able to rebuild their lives, they should not be expected to keep on reliving their past, least of all live on national TV. I’d be interested to know how the BBC squares Neil’s conduct with its own Editorial Guidelines:

‘The BBC strives to be fair to all – fair to those our output is about, fair to contributors, and fair to our audiences. BBC content should be based on respect, openness and straight dealing. We also have an obligation under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code to “avoid unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations in programmes”.’

As John Hirst tried to point out, there are fundamental rights at stake in here. The old adage that people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment is relevant here as much as anywhere else. So of course prisoners should have the vote. All of them.

But I can’t help feeling underwhelmed by the announcement. And this is not only because the government seems intent on excluding some categories of prisoner from voting.

As numerous reports over the years have pointed out, the day to day experience of prisoners is all too often distressing, austere, scary, deeply depressing and dehumanising. Mental health problems among prisoners are rife. Threats, bullying and intimidation by both prisoners and staff is widespread. Prisoners are ‘unpersoned‘ while in custody.

For these reasons, I suspect that many prisoners will have far more pressing concerns than whether they get the chance, every four or five years, to play a small part in deciding on the next government. Of course they should have the vote. But let’s not forget what the real challenge is.