Give prisoners the right to vote

September 19, 2008 at 2:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Prison Reform | 5 Comments
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For anyone keeping score, there are nine European countries which ban all prisoners from voting in elections. These are: Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg, Romania, Russia and the United Kingdom. For those of us who believe this to be a pretty embarrassing deficit in our democracy, being in the company of seven countries whose democratic processes are younger than I am really drives the point home.

For many years prison reform charities campaigned, with little success, for this law to be overturned, until the court in Strasbourg finally ruled that it was against a prisoner’s human rights to deny them the vote. Trouble is, that ruling was over four years ago, and since then the franchise hasn’t been extended to a single inmate. In fact, the only concrete step the government has taken to meet their legal obligation was the launch of a ‘consultation process’ in 2006, but this was apparently so insufficient that Jack Straw’s still insisting they need a “more detailed public consultation on how voting rights might be granted to serving prisoners”. No date for this ‘second consultation’ has been set, of course. Anyone would think they were dragging their feet.

So the recent call by the UN to extend the vote to prisoners is a very welcome intervention. In their report on the state of British civil liberties, the UNHCR states that “the general deprivation of the right to vote for convicted prisoners may not meet the requirements” of the UN’s own human rights covenant. But whilst the UN’s statement is useful for being another source of pressure for the government to act, the reason to give inmates the vote isn’t because of any wooly-minded abstraction about human rights. No, for the prisoners themselves, the reasons are all too practical.

As I’ve detailed over & over & over again, the prisons service is in a grim place right now. Jails are at record capacity. Inmates are killing themselves, self-harming or becoming hooked on drugs, and our efforts towards reducing reoffending have stalled. With the proposed new ‘Titan Prisons’ having been roundly condemned by penal reform advocates, there’s really no knowing when the situation will improve, nor how many lives will have been ruined before it does.

There is so much that is badly broken with our prison system, but because prisoners don’t have a vote, they don’t have a voice. If it wasn’t for groups like the Prison Reform Trust and a handful of MPs of good conscience, there wouldn’t be anyone to publicise the need for penal reform at all, let alone do something about it. By extending the franchise you have the potential to turn inmates into active constituents, and become a voting block that MPs and Parliamentary candidates would be forced to sit up and listen to. As John Hirst, the ex-inmate who brought the landmark case against the government, said in 2004: “Until now there have been no votes in jails and so MPs did nothing about penal reform.”

But four years have passed and time is quickly running out. By most objective estimates, we’ll be under a Tory government within two years at the latest, and if you think Labour’s been bad on this issue, just wait until you hear how Dominic Greive, the then Shadow Attorney General, reacted to the idea back in 05:

“Giving prisoners the vote would be ludicrous. If convicted rapists and murderers are given the vote it will bring the law into disrepute and many people will see it as making a mockery of justice.”

We can’t let this window of opportunity pass; by giving prisoners the vote, Labour could begin to make amends for the mess it’s made, but it if it doesn’t move quickly, it could all be too late.

Rebels without a clue

March 11, 2008 at 10:40 am | Posted in Celebrity, Drugs | 2 Comments
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A UN report claims that drug use is bad for Africa; media reports on how it’s bad for celebrities 

Over at Obselete there’s a lengthy post about the trend towards blaming all the world’s problems on celebrities. Last week, a UN report blamed the Dohertys, Mosses and Winehouses of the world for glamourising drug use and criticised our judicial system for being too lenient on these strung-out snort machines. Septicisle rightly points out that the endless ambulance-chasing of Doherty and Winehouse, their physical deterioration and very public breakdowns hardly leave the impression that drug use is glamourous, and also notes that without an obsessive and intrusive media making money out of stalking them, there’d be no such stories in the first place:

All of this though is still missing the most obvious point: that without the sanctimonious media that feels fit to follow a “celebrity’s” every movement, and indeed has the power to both make that individual’s image in the first place and then later to destroy it if it so desires, the public at large that are apparently so influenced by celebrity behaviour would never know about it in the first place.

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Newspapers of course love to have it both ways: they denounce the behaviour of celebrities in comment pieces and leader columns while their sales and showbiz pages depend on capturing that very behaviour which would otherwise go unnoticed.

But in the media’s obsession with celebrity, a far more important part of the report was missed; namely, the toll that the drug trade is taking on the failed states of West Africa. Sunday’s Observer featured some first rate reporting:

By day, Guinea-Bissau looks like the impoverished country it is. Most people cannot afford a bus fare, never mind a four-wheel drive. There is no mains electricity. Water supplies are restricted to the wealthy few, and landmark buildings such as the presidential palace remain wrecked nine years after the end of the war. But this wreck of a country is what the UN – which declared war last week on celebrity cocaine culture – calls the continent’s ‘first narco-state’. West Africa has become the hub of a flow of cocaine from South America into Europe, now that other routes have become tough for the traffickers.

With the old lines of supply becoming more heavily-policed, the drug barons of Columbia established a trade route through countries like Guinea-Bissau, in large part because their state is so weak that politicians and police officials are easily bought-off. It is this terrible situation that prompted Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN’s anti-drugs office, to write this passionate comment piece:

And yet for every rebel with a cause, there are 10 others without a clue. While some well-meaning pop idols and film stars might rage against suffering in Africa, their work is being undermined by the drug habits of careless peers such as Kate Moss. For the cocaine used in Europe passes through impoverished countries in west Africa, where the drugs trade is causing untold misery, corruption, violence and instability.

Of course, Kate Moss is not directly responsible for the drug trade in Africa and it’s still far too easy to blame celebrity substance abuse for making it more widespread amongst the general population. That said, anyone who has ever bought or used cocaine is still an indirect accomplice in the misery of millions. And for those celebrities who lend their voices to campaigns on behalf of Africa and yet still find time for the odd line, it’s the vilest kind of hypocrisy.

Costa’s piece ends with this pointed plea: if you don’t care what the drug does to you, at least spare a thought for what it can do to others.

Too true. But no one’ll ever write a pop song about it.

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