Building the argument for prison reform

April 14, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 2 Comments

It’s been nearly two weeks since my last post on the subject, so by now I’m sure you’re all gagging for another riveting instalment of Prison Reform News! By the time I’m done, you’ll probably be wishing I’d stayed on holiday…

To start, today’s report in The Guardian about the government’s failure to rehabilitate offenders underscores three oft-repeated points. The first is that the efforts of charities and third sector bodies towards trying to achieve something in this area are being constrained by two major problems: the prison service is too overstretched and overcrowded for rehabilitation efforts to be effective, and the government has a habit of interfering with any programmes which might prove embarrassing when they’re distorted in the tabloids. One such example, a planned comedy workshop in Whitemoor prison, clearly had potential benefits for developing inmates’ personal & social skills, but it was cancelled solely because Jack Straw thought it’d look bad. So government needs to be a lot braver on that score and, if necessary, just swallow one or two bad headlines every once in a while. I mean, it’s not like they’re going to spoil all the adulation they’re currently basking in, is it?

The second point is that it should again highlight the need to think seriously about ways to incentivise rehabilitation within the prison system. Reducing the level of reoffending should be prioritised as a matter of public safety, and it’s a little odd to note that this is an area where Conservatives are thinking/talking more progressively than Labour; David Cameron has previously made positive noises about creating some kind of league table system, and the Aitken report includes incentivisation as one of its key recommendations.

The last point is the shortest, and, I would hope, most obvious: if you’re failing in your efforts to rehabilitate offenders, you’re not being ‘tough’ on crime – you’re incubating it.

Moving on, and whilst I was on holiday, the government published yet another consultation document on giving prisoners the right to vote. Such has been Labour’s foot-dragging on the issue, I won’t hold out much hope that this will be achieved before the last election (by which point a Tory government will certainly scrap it), and I sympathise with the Prison Reform Trust’s rather weary, grumpy response. But since I’ve done the rights & wrongs of the government’s position to death, I’ll instead pick up on recent comments about the way this campaign has been fought.

In different ways, both Sunder Katwala and Norman Geras identify a real problem among those of us who want to extend the vote to prisoners: our arguments often fall flat to anyone who’s agnostic on the issue. The piece Geras links to is probably the worst I’ve read, but Sunder is equally right to note the respective weaknesses of Juliet Lyons & Johann Hari’s positions. As I’ve commented before, because of the strength in numbers of those who shout the opposing view, there’s a danger that penal reformers direct their arguments only to likeminded friends, and speak/write as if the virtues of their position are self-evident. So when someone asks “why do you want to give prisoners the right to vote?”, the answer which comes back is often only slightly less circular than “because prisoners don’t have the right to vote”.

However, when you try to break out from this circularity and speak of specific benefits to society from extending the franchise, you encounter another set of problems; Sunder is certainly correct to imply that Lyons and Hari’s arguments about how prisoners would engage more with politics – and politicians with prisoners – are overstated and unproveable, and even if those benefits were disproved, both writers would still argue for extending the franchise on principle.

I’m not sure that I’m going to be any more effective at constructing an argument which wins over the doubters, but what I would say is that it must be situated in the context of the current state of the our prison system. Under Labour, our imprisonment rate has become the second highest in Europe and 62% of prisoners go on reoffend, at a cost of over £12 billion. The length of an average sentence is a completely unproductive 3 months, prisons are increasingly being used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and there are unacceptable levels of drug use, self-harm and suicides. At the same time, Labour’s only moves towards reform have been concerned with how to incarcerate prisoners more cheaply, not how to effectively reduce reoffending.

The system needs reform, but there will never be any votes in liberalisation whilst the issue is so completely smothered by ‘get tough!’ tubthumping. The most we can be sure of about extending the franchise to prisoners is that it will finally put votes in prison reform, and give those reform groups the chance to claim the democratic mandate which are available to every other political lobby. Beyond that, under habeas corpus, we have the right to challenge the state’s justification for our imprisonment. It seems to me entirely logical that we should then – even if found guilty – be able to challege the conditions under which we are imprisoned. The best way of ensuring that accountability remains the ballot box, and without it, there is no incentive for the state to improve those conditions.

That still might not be an adequate justification for some, and it’s always going to be an uphill struggle to convince people why we should give rights to those who have committed terrible crimes. The reason I keep at it is because I regard the prison system as absolutely crucial towards constructing a serious left (or liberal-left) alternative to the current criminal justice system. When Labour finds itself out of power in a few years time, these will be vitally important discussions to have.

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