by Adam Edwards

If this is how the Queen treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any.
— Oscar Wilde

Every few months the ongoing tit-for-tat between the UK government and the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg develops. Strasbourg will insist that the UK must extend suffrage to the country’s imprisoned populace, and UK politicians will line up to express how nauseating they find the idea. It’s a piece of political theatre that unfolds with the predictable reliability of a soap opera.

It should serve to remind us as to the purpose prisons serve. Episodes like this ought to help us scratch the Ministry of Justice’s PR varnish enough to remember that prisons exist primarily as an expression of the power of the state over the individual; cross the line and we will lock you up. Not only will we take your liberty, but inasmuch as we seek to ‘rehabilitate’ and ‘reform’ you, we will take your identity too. We will arrest your body and your conscience alike; we will isolate you and remove you. While we’ve got the keys, you don’t exist. Just cross the line.

The mission statements that ooze from the Ministry of Justice marketing teams which inject words like ‘reform’ into the prison vernacular are laughably sinister. I’m reminded of the Oak of Reformation, an object out of Norwich folklore that once grew somewhere north of the city’s Magdalen Gate on Mousehold Heath. It was used as a meeting point for the membership of Robert Kett’s Rebellion. Following their defeat in 1549, up to 300 of them were hanged from the Oak. Reformation in action.

The show of revulsion that the prospect of allowing prisoners to participate in democracy provokes must stem from the idea that those who violate the social contract should be denied the capacity to participate in the election of lawmakers. Is it really so nauseating an idea that those who have committed crimes be permitted to vote? What purpose does the total alienation of a prisoner from the outside world serve? I’d wager that it’s not rehabilitation.

At the top of Kett’s Hill (named after the traitorous rogue turned folk hero) is HM Prison Norwich, which also houses the Britannia Café, a restaurant staffed by low risk prisoners detained in Norwich. The café has an heroic goal in mind in turning to the inmates for staffing; inmates (who are disproportionately drawn from the oppressed) are given skills and experience, but also have the opportunity to interact with people who are neither inmates nor prison staff; they are allowed to remember that they are a part of the world at large, and soon will be able to return to it.

(HM Prison Norwich © George Plunkett)

In spite of the waves of evidence that roll across the North Sea from Norway and Sweden (which announced this year that it would be closing six prisons due to a drop in prisoner numbers), we hold to an outdated Foucauldian idea about prison as punishment in which isolation, alienation, and disenfranchisement are part of the packages. By denying suffrage to the prison population we remove those convicted from the electoral process, yes, but also from society. We deny their right to participate in government. It is not for us to pick and choose which rights we will choose to extend to different individuals.

It is not for us to pick and choose which rights we will choose to extend to different individuals.

Once it was the untitled and the unwashed who were excluded from the electoral process. At the beginning of the last century, the vote was still tied to property ownership and in 1928, finally ‘universal suffrage for all’ became a feature of the UK electoral process. Yet a blanket ban dating from the 1870s endures to this day, apparently overriding the legislation passed since, and ignoring the enshrinement of universal suffrage for all in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lawmakers eager to exclude prisoners from the electoral process demean the meaning of democracy in our society, and serve only to degrade the validity of their own positions. Only an election conducted under true universal suffrage should be classed as a valid expression of a society’s democratic will ­— which is another issue altogether.

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