No, you can’t rehabilitate

(Previously published in the McTavish Opera blog 6 July 2013)
Disenfranchising low-level offenders is hypocrisy.

Interesting business in the Scottish Parliament recently. Alison Mcinnes (Liberal-Democrat) MSP and Patrick Harvie (Green) MSP tabled a motion asking for low-level convicted prisoners the right to vote in the 2014 Independence Referendum.

In an impassioned speech in the Scottish Parliament, Patrick Harvie based his argument of enfranchising prisoners on three points about the purpose of prisons;

  • They protect the public from offenders
    They punish offenders.
    They are a means of rehabilitating offenders.

As Mr Harvie pointed out, taking the vote away from offenders does not serve the purpose of protecting the public.

Nor is it really a means of punishment; to claim that it is suggests that the right to vote is a privilege which can be taken away from society by the establishment.

The real problem with disenfranchising prisoners however is that it does nothing to rehabilitate offenders back into society.

When we take the vote away from a convicted prisoner, just what are we saying to that individual? We tell them that we wish them to rehabilitate, to be good citizen and a useful part of society. And in saying that, we remove from them one of the most basic means of participating within a democratic society.

As Patrick Harvie stated, voting is not a privilege, it is a human right. And as Alison Mcinnes stated continuing to disenfranchise prisoners sends the message that they are further isolated and society has given up on them.

The motion was also supported by that doyen of Scottish politicians, the fantastic Margo Macdonald (independent) MSP.

The motion called for convicted offenders sentenced up to four years imprisonment to be enfranchised. I for one do not think that is an unreasonable request. Unfortunately the sitting Scottish National Party administration in Holyrood think otherwise and with held with the Labour and Conservative members, the motion was defeated. I personally feel that Scotland has missed a golden opportunity to show how we can be a forward-thinking and all-inclusive modern society.

Of the 28 member states of the European Union no fewer than 18, the vast majority of them, allow the enfranchisement of convicted prisoners in one form or others. France in particular only removes the vote as an extra measure as it is recognised that it is taking a right away.

The problem seems to be that people see prison primarily as a place of punishment. During the debate in the Scottish Parliament, those opposing brought up the fears of violent offenders and recidivist housebreakers being enfranchised. That was never the case. A rapist or a habitual burglar is not the same as someone who has been jailed for breaking licence or for non-payment of fines following being convicted of shoplifting – and there are plenty of those in Scotland’s only all-woman prison, Cornton Vale; too many as a matter of fact.

Many of those who find themselves imprisoned have already become isolated and given up upon by society. If we wish them to become useful members of society, then prisons must be first and foremost be seen as a place of rehabilitation. We do not achieve that by effectively telling them that they are not members of society, which disenfranchising them for what really are breadcrumb sins.

Not only should we be enfranchising low-level offenders for the Scottish Independence Referendum, we should be doing it for all forms of elections. If these people, particularly young prisoners, are frustrated, I for one want them to voice their opinion. More than that, it is a fundamental human right that they should be allowed to do so.

I have no doubt the vast majority of society will disagree with me. Well the vast majority of society would happily bring back hanging. The vast majority would feed prisoners bread and water and return to the days of slopping out. The vast majority of society do not want rehabilitation of prisoners, they merely seek retribution. Prisoners are human beings, just like you and I, and thankfully we do not live in a “lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key” society and nor should we. History has proven that the only way to reach offenders is to engage with them. And the only way that prisoners can ever rehabilitate is to engage with society, with the right to vote being one of societies most basic principles.

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