Prisoners, voting and active citizenship

By Tim Newell
18 Nov 2010

Being able to exercise a vote is an important symbol of belonging to a society and being a citizen. Despite the high incidence of punishing people through imprisonment, we have always seen one of the purposes of custody as rehabilitation and reform. The hope is that the prison experience will enable the person to change their behaviour and become more pro-social in attitudes and actions. Citizenship learning should therefore be a core element of the prison regime and indeed, there are many rules and regulations within that seek to help people learn respect for the law. Trusting prisoners with a vote sends out a strong message that they are valued as members of our society and that despite their offending, they remain part of our community. Enabling them to vote will be a further sign that they remain important in the life of their families, their locality and their community. The loss of freedom is their punishment, not the loss of their voice.

The way we think about people who are subject to our system of justice defines our view about the nature of being human. The basic value of human nature is reflected in the way we consider those who have transgressed our expectations and who are dependent upon our decisions under the criminal justice system. The godliness within each of us is reflected in the way that we can be transformed by the process of repentance and forgiveness. From this premise, we recognise the potential for transformation within each person: we do not write off groups as untreatable or as evil; instead we hold out a vision of their future as members of a community which involves them within it.

The concept of citizenship has been used with various meanings at various times, in the context of different implied social and political values, and in pursuit of various objectives. The dictionary definition of a citizen is a native or inhabitant of a state of a city, and the term is often used in a narrow and technical sense, related to immigration or nationality law. In classical times, the concept implied a privileged status above that of slaves or other inhabitants. In revolutionary France or the United States, or among radicals such as Levellers and Chartists, it was used to imply a sense of freedom and independence, often in contrast to the situation of those who were still ‘subjects’ of an hereditary sovereign. It can thus be used ‘exclusively’ or ‘inclusively’, with very different implications and connotations.

In the period after the Second World War, citizenship began to be associated with social justice, with ideas of public service and of social obligation, and with rights such as those expressed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations’ Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention On Human Rights. The concept also came to be extended to the economic and social rights associated with the welfare state. It began to recede from political debate when the idealism of the immediate post-war period gave way to scepticism and disappointment, or it might be said, to political realism, during the 1960s and 1970s.

The Conservative Government of 1979 – 1997 revived the concept in the ‘Citizen’s Charter’. There it was associated with a person’s ‘rights’ in relation to services provided by the state. The revival was in the context of that Government’s distinctive social and economic policies
– there was a narrow, individualistic focus on an individual's rights as a consumer (essentially to choose between competing providers, or to complain), and no suggestion of any wider sense of social or civic duty or responsibility.

In other debates, citizenship began to be used to counter the individualism that had become pervasive in politics and in working and social relationships during the period. It was again associated with the ideas of public duty and social responsibility, and it was used to
emphasise shared interests and responsibilities, often among people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

For the Labour Government which took office in 1997, citizenship was similarly connected with duties and obligations, The focus was now on duties to obey the law, to be of good behaviour, to care for and control one’s children, to work and pay taxes. Observing those duties was seen as a counterpart to the human rights which Parliament had incorporated into domestic law in the Human Rights Act, 1998. In a return to the older idea of ‘lesser eligibility’, people were sometimes portrayed as having forfeited their status as citizens if they committed a criminal offence, especially if they received a prison sentence. Citizenship was reserved for the ‘law-abiding’ and ‘hard-working’ majority.

In the programme for ‘civil renewal’, introduced by David Blunkett during his time as Home Secretary (2001 – 2004), the Government gave encouragement to a concept of ‘active citizenship’. The idea was essentially that people should give some of their time to voluntary work for the benefit of their community, and by implication, in support of the Government’s own policies. ‘Active citizenship’ would not for example, include taking part in demonstrations. Responsibility for the programme was transferred from the Home Office to the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2006, where it became part of a wider range of policies concerned with the teaching of citizenship in schools and with subjects such as community cohesion, urban regeneration and neighbourhood renewal. A common aim was to enable people to engage with public bodies and influence the decisions that affect their communities. Most of the programme was outside the area of criminal justice, but it included for example the development of community justice and ‘community courts’, together with various forms of engagement between local communities and the National Offender Management Service to help reduce re-offending.

There has been less emphasis on offenders’ own rights and responsibilities as citizens, and the notion of ‘lesser eligibility’ has always had some influence. Community service has usually been seen more as a punishment than an act of citizenship. There is a long tradition of prisoners doing work which benefits local communities, but this has rarely been seen in a theoretical framework and it has always been marginal to the main tasks of the prison and probation services and vulnerable to political and operational pressures. The concept of citizenship was implicit in Lord Wilberforce’s well-known judgement in Raymond v. Honey (1983) that ‘in spite of his imprisonment, a convicted prisoner retains all civil rights that are not taken away expressly or by necessary implication’, but that judgement has not had much practical effect.

The concept is also implicit in restorative justice, and in approaches to the treatment of offenders, especially of prisoners, which emphasise their equal status as human beings, their entitlement to dignity and respect, their own obligation to take responsibility for what they have done and for rebuilding their own lives. That obligation includes playing a part in their communities, and the duty of society as a whole to give them the opportunities to do so. The right to vote in Parliamentary elections is a symbolic but important example.

Approaches such as these are still very much on the margins of penal policy. But they may still have some potential as a driving force for penal reform, in a favourable political climate if they could be given some credible content. One necessary condition would be the capacity of local communities, including minority communities, to respond to the opportunities which could be made available, and the power and responsibility to do so constructively and in a spirit of public duty and service. Building local capacity - and with it responsibility – will be as important as the provision of actual services or interventions. Another condition is that civil renewal and active citizenship should not be seen as a matter which is only for people outside the system, or for offenders. Staff should be enabled and encouraged to play their own part as members of their own communities, with the authority and opportunity to act to innovate and instigate, as many probation officers were able to do in the early days of victim support and restorative justice.

Will the Coalition’s vision of the Big Society include those who have committed offences against their fellow citizens? It appears as though it might, with the emphasis on work in prisons so that prisoners can contribute part of their earnings to the Victims Fund. Also the possibility that restorative justice approaches might be tried in prison will inevitably include a change on the perception of the capacity of the individual to take responsibility for their actions and for their change.

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© Tim Newell was a prison governor for 38 years till his retirement in 2002. His last command was at Grendon Prison - the therapeutic prison for men who have committed the most serious of offences and whose regimes involve sharing power in determining decisions about what should happen within their communities and voting on the issues. Since retirement, he has worked in restorative practice with community responses to serious sex offenders (Circles of Support and Accountability) and latterly in providing services for people bereaved by homicide (Escaping Victimhood).

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