It's inhuman that prisoners are denied a voteOffenders are still having the most basic of human rights withdrawn from them
The Observer, Sunday 27 July 2014
Though I have never yet spent time in prison, I know several people who have. Occasionally, these men have been moved to share some of the experiences they encountered when they were behind bars. The conversations rarely last very long because there comes a point in them when it no longer becomes possible to convey the essence of what it's like to be a prisoner to someone who has never experienced it.
Even when someone has told me freely about the circumstances of his arrest, detention, sentencing and incarceration, it is privileged information and I feel somehow that I am intruding. And it is at these times that I wonder too if it was only the prayers of my two devout grannies and assorted aunties that stood between me and a spell in the pokey.
It's not difficult to find yourself behind bars in 21st-century Scotland. This country's justice system has been annexed by the police and inevitably the lumpen mentality of the plods insinuates itself into government: view every citizen as a potential criminal; lock up as many of them as you can for as long as you can and then treat them like scum when they're inside.
There have been several unhappy consequences since Scotland's justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, began ceding territory to Stephen House, Scotland's new chief of police and a man whose sinister presence is being increasingly felt throughout Scotland.
This character is a serious piece of work. From staging secret taser trials on city streets to conducting more annual stop and searches than occur in New York, this man seems hellbent on ensuring that there will never be any spare capacity inside the nation's prisons. His decision to arm his officers without the consent of parliament and the people saw the Scottish Daily Mail last week publish very disturbing images of gun-carrying cops disturbing sleeping jaikies in Glasgow city centre.
The SNP likes to portray itself as the pin-up of the European convention on human rights. Lazily, we indolent liberals among the chattering classes applaud them for it while remaining blind to the increasingly reactionary character of the government. The takeover of the state by the police while the rest of us are all sleeping is one manifestation of this. The way we treat our prison population is another.
Last Thursday, two Scottish prisoners lost their appeal at the supreme court to be allowed to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence. Each had argued that the ban on prisoners being allowed the right to vote was incompatible with the European convention on human rights and was a breach of the common law right to vote. Previously, Scottish judges had upheld the SNP government's absolute refusal on any Scottish prisoner being allowed to vote in this election to end all elections.
When you take into account the process of recruiting judges in Britain and the usual spawning grounds of generations of their lordships and their secret practices, nothing should surprise us about many of their decisions over the years, such as the convictions of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and several other dirty little miscarriages of justice.
But how do we account for the SNP's attitude on votes for prisoners? This party swans around Scottish public life granting rights to all those who ask and preening itself for ensuring that Scotland is the most sensitive and laissez-faire wee country in the world, bless us.
Giving prisoners the right to vote ought instinctively to be the correct thing to do for any SNP government. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland in 2011 we spent £128m on trying to prevent reoffending. In the same year, 9,500 of those convicted (22% of the Scottish prison population) had 10 or more previous convictions.
More than 30% of convicted prisoners are reconvicted within the year. Scotland has one of the highest prison populations in Europe and our answer, it seems, is simply that of a medieval robber baron: build bigger prisons and give the bastards longer sentences.
This is nothing other than a cycle of evil and despair and it is a disgrace that none of Scotland's liberal left governments has done anything to break it. The reason none has, of course, owes little to what they sincerely believe. They know that by engaging our prison population in politics and the democratic process is also to invite them to consider the value of persuasion by reason and action by consent. It also gives them a reason not to reoffend on their release.
By opposing this, they simply pander to the lowest common denominator of society that demands we dehumanise our offenders: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
It is mob-led politics. We would still be hanging people by the neck until they died if we had allowed ourselves to be influenced by ignorance and revenge. The overwhelming majority of our prison population comes from Scotland's most deprived and under-privileged areas. Drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and childhood exposure to violence are significant factors in their offending.
The Labour party in Scotland and now the SNP have abandoned these people and their communities over many decades and now are hellbent on treating them like dogs. Most of the men and the women who find themselves in prison are sons, fathers, uncles, sisters and daughters. Most of them are not bad but sorely need someone to reach out to them and begin treating them as human beings.
Political activism inside our prisons could possibly lead to political meetings and the possibility of debates and mock hustings. But that sort of outcome would also require our prison governors and their staff to display progressive thinking, almost as entertaining a concept as enlightened policing in Scotland.
Our politicians might even find themselves visiting our jails and addressing prisoners at election time and that is something that ought not to cause them any discomfiture: reaching out to fraudsters, hucksters, tax-evaders and professional deceivers is part of their everyday life on the outside.