Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The law should stand up for prisoners too

The law should stand up for prisoners too

By Eric Allison

Throughout my association with the penal system - a link stretching back over 50 years - there has always been talk and hope that, one day, prisoners would gain "rights". And the fight for those rights has not been limited to lobbying. The riots that erupted in the last three decades of the last century, at Hull, Parkhurst, Strangeways, and other jails, had a common cause: in every case, prisoners had reached the end of their tether; their rights, as human beings, had been ignored once too often.

Now, nearing the end of the first decade after the millennium, a new chapter in the struggle has begun. As before, prisoners are leading the way - but this time not on the wings and landings of the system. They are taking their fight to the courts, and they may just have the government on the run.

Later this year, a legal challenge to the government's refusal to give prisoners the vote will be launched. Five years ago on Monday, the right of prisoners to be involved in the electoral process was established by the European court of human rights after a former prisoner, John Hirst, had successfully argued that a high court ruling in 2001, forbidding prisoners to vote, was a breach of his human rights. The government appealed and lost. It then spent two years on a consultation exercise, but refused to publish the results, then announced that another discourse would take place, but will not say when this will begin or end. The fudging may now have to stop.

The challenge, by the newly-reformed Association of Prisoners (AoP), will seek a high court ruling that the ban on prisoners voting is a breach of the Human Rights Act. Lawyers for the AoP will ask the court to order the government to enact legislation allowing prisoners to vote, before the next general election. If the government refuses, an injunction will be issued to prevent the next election taking place.

This challenge has firm foundations. Parliament's joint committee on human rights has stated that "the government must give prisoners the right to vote or the next general election will be illegal under European law. Ministers have been warned."

The Ministry of Justice is running scared on this issue, terrified of the reaction of the tabloids to prisoners becoming engaged in the democratic process. It has suited New Labour, as it suited the Tories before them, to dehumanise prisoners in the eyes of the public. It ignores the fact that, one day, all but a minuscule minority of prisoners will re-enter the society they came from, and that common sense dictates that we engage prisoners in that society as much as possible while they are detained.

Giving suffrage to prisoners will not be a panacea for the ails of the system that holds them. To cite just two problems, it will not stop the scandal of imprisoning, in their tens of thousands, those who, in a just society, would be treated for the mental health problems they suffer from (if you enter a local prison - the jails that receive prisoners from courts - you are more likely than not to be forced to share a cell with a prisoner who has significant mental health problems); and nor will it stop the practice of holding prisoners hundreds of miles from their homes, thereby creating massive problems for their (innocent) families and friends.

It may, however, concentrate the minds of MPs in constituencies where there are prisons - the Isle of Wight, for example, holds around 1,500 prisoners - and force them to address the need for reform. How ironic it will be if it is the judiciary that brings about this change, over the heads of a government that panders to tabloid tastes.

It is said that everyone deserves their day in court. Those who are held in our jails have had more such days than most, and generally see the law as being solely an instrument of punishment. If the law that sent them down now stands up for the rights of prisoners, who knows, maybe some of them will be less inclined to break it in the future.

• Eric Allison writes on criminal justice.

n.b. This post was copy and pasted after 12 Noon and therefore is not an April Fool's Day joke and should be taken seriously.

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