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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Prisoners Votes Campaign

Prisoners Votes Campaign

In 1989, whilst I was located in Hull Prison Special Unit, I set out with two objectives. Reform myself and reform the penal system. In relation to the latter the starting point was the following quote:

There are supposed to be ‘no votes in prisons’ and no political prizes for doing something about them. Any politician brave enough either to tell the truth about them or grasp the nettle and try to change the way they are run is likely, so it is believed, to run into difficulties with public opinion”.

Like Guy Fawkes before me, I embarked upon an assault on Parliament. To effect change required a pressure group, according to the following quote.

One of the complicating features in analysis of pressure group influence is that several organizations may be pursuing similar but not identical aims in different and even contradictory ways. The pattern is noticeable in the context of prison reform (Wright 1975) where there is an uneasy coexistence of gradualists and radicals. The National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation if Offenders (NACRO), funded mainly through the Home Office is able, as a voluntary organization, to conduct experimental projects with official backing. Its closeness to the authorities gives it access to information, ‘the most valuable commodity in the reform business’. The Howard League for Penal Reform acts as an independent body, with influential parliamentary links, which carries out research and produces educational material on prison reform. Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) is run by and for ex-offenders, focussing on prisoners’ rights and at times resorting to direct action. Finally, Radical Alternatives to Prison (RAP), fuelled by allegations in the late 1960s of harsh prison conditions, brutality in detention centres, and force feeding, concentrated its attention on the more fundamental question of whether its right to incarcerate people at all.

Ryan (1978) in a comparison of the performance of the Howard League and RAP, illustrates the limits of pluralism. He shows that Governments and top bureaucrats grant differential access to pressure groups, according to their willingness to abide by unwritten rules about what can be questioned and the limits of permissible change. RAP, because they have not kept to such rules, but demanded total abolition of the prison system, have been defined out of the reform process. The Howard League on the other hand, has obeyed the rules, maintained access to the powerful (and, as a former Secretary Hugh Klare, 1979, concedes, has steered clear of what it has always regarded as hostile public opinion) and has consequently achieved some, though limited, success. In doing so, however, Ryan concludes, the Howard League has been contaminated by the Establishment and has buttressed a system which tolerates only gradualist reforms”.

I am more radical than the Howard League and Prison Reform Trust, however, not so radical as to support total abolition of the prison system. I studied law and came across the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Convention on Human Rights was produced after the evil of World War II. Its words were a first line of defence against the re-emergence of the totalitarian state”.

We are told that the UK is a liberal democracy. However, within this is another world governed by the Prison Act 1952.

In effect the Act simply calls upon the [Secretary of State for Justice] to create and police an internal regime for prisoners”.

In other words, within a so-called liberal democracy there is a state within a state and s.47 of the Act means, in practice, that the prison world is a totalitarian state. And it is because of this that prisoners’ getting the vote is a very important step towards ensuring that those living within our ‘inner cities’ become part of the democracy enjoyed by those members of society not subject to imprisonment.

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