Prisons, votes and venom

By Jill Segger
February 11, 2011

Feeling despondent or angry at the decisions of governments is a fairly common occurrence for most of us. But yesterday, I felt ashamed.

Ashamed, because only 22 MPs across all the parties representing us in parliament had the moral courage and independence of mind to vote in support of the enfranchisement of prisoners.

The concept that “there are no votes in prisons” is true on two counts: in the literal sense that those whose liberty has been taken are currently also deprived of their citizenship, and in the attitude of politicians who do not generally see creative and ethical thinking on the penal system as a stance which will increase their poll returns.

Convicted offenders are an easy target for vengeful feelings. And it is only realistic to acknowledge that being on the receiving end of crime does not bring out the best in our natures. Not long ago, I returned to my car to find a window smashed and several items missing. The person responsible had also urinated right in the middle of the driving seat and in my drinking cup.

For several minutes, images of the stocks and the hurling of rotten vegetables flashed across my mental screen. Revenge was more prominent in my disturbed emotions than anything more edifying. What troubles me most about the intensity of this response, is that it is in direct opposition to my most deeply held beliefs on justice, equality and “that of God” in every human person.

I am guessing that many of us may experience these Daily Mail moments. They are the origin of the jibe that a conservative is a liberal who has just been burgled. But such impulses - powerful though they are - only become truly dangerous if left unexamined. Moral discernment and self-examination tells me that the man who made such a mess of my car (women do not generally pee with such accuracy) should have been called to account and obliged to offer reparation. But to want him to suffer and forfeit his dignity simply for the relief of my feelings, was an unworthy and damaging response.

This was a minor – though unpleasant - offence. More difficult questions arise in cases of murder, rape or other acts of physical violence. But the central tenet remains: is imprisonment primarily a sign of society's disapprobation, a means (not the only one) of making reparation, a time when reform and rehabilitation should be paramount, or is it a state which exists so we can vent our rage and hurt in a venomous and uncritical fashion?

It is easier to be angry and retaliatory than to exercise discernment. Politicians know this and far too many of them have shown a readiness to put popular prejudice first when they think it will keep their seats safe. Only 22 participants in last night's vote were prepared to be signs of contradiction. The remaining 234 (where were the other 393?) pushed a humane and effective prison estate yet a little further out of reach.

Coupled with the easy target of national sovereignty (always a Good Thing) versus foreign interference in the shape of the European Court of Human Rights (always a Bad Thing), this shameful response was sadly predictable. Nationalism and self-righteousness are a toxic combination and when legislators and opinion formers show themselves eager to blow these dog whistles, we need to think long and hard before coming to heel.

David Cameron claims that the thought of taking this step of restoring a fundamental right of citzenship to prisoners (which, let it be noted, cannot logically be said to diminish the rights of their victims) makes him “feel physically sick”. Well Mr Cameron, you make me feel pretty nauseous.

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