Prison, punishment and democracy

prisonChristina McKelvie is quite wrong when she says that “prison is a place people go to be punished“. Prison is the punishment. Imprisonment. Incarceration. Immurement. Forfeiture of liberty is the penalty. The law allows for no further punishment beyond this. Prison is a place people are sent as punishment, not to be punished.

Prisoners are wards of the state. The state is responsible for their welfare. Which means we, each and every citizen of Scotland, owes a duty of care to prisoners. That may be an uncomfortable thought for some. But it is a fact, nonetheless. It is an unavoidable corollary of a truly democratic system. The necessarily implication of this is that we must ensure that inmates are not subject to additional punishment whilst in prison. It is essential that our justice system be fair. The penalties imposed for breaking the law must be transparent and consistent and even-handed. Which means we must be able to measure, as accurately as possible, the extent to which individuals are being punished. We do this using time. Ideally, the period of incarceration correlates closely with the seriousness of the crime so that those who have committed similar offences forfeit their liberty for the same amount of time.

It’s not easy to know what alternative measure might be used. What is certain is that, were there to be various additional punishments meted out whilst the sentence is being served, measuring the impact on individuals of these on individuals must be as close to impossible as makes no difference. For the system to be perceived as fair, the state must do all it can to ensure that the conditions under which prisoners serve their sentences are as close to identical as possible.

We send people to prison because we care about society. It would be illogical, therefore, not to care about the welfare of prisoners. They may be segregated from society, but they do not cease to be part of it. The vast majority will be expected to resume a life within society once their sentence is served. Prison must prepare them for this. It simply makes no sense to imagine that you can prepare an individual for being part of society by treating them as a social reject. It is in society’s interest that every effort be made to engage those who, self-evidently, have the greatest difficulty engaging.

There can hardly be anything more symbolic of rejection and disengagement than denial of that most fundamental of civil rights, the right to vote. A blanket ban, in particular, must be inherently unfair. Two individuals having committed identical crimes under identical circumstances and been given identical sentences could be arbitrarily subject to different penalties in terms of loss of opportunities to vote simply by virtue of when they serve their period of incarceration. One might miss two or more chances to exercise their democratic franchise, whilst the other misses none. It is inherently and unavoidably unfair.

Democracy is better for being participative. The more people who vote, the better. The more people who vote, the more representative of society the outcome is. In order to ensure – or, at least, facilitate – maximum participation the default position has to be that absolutely everybody has a vote. There should be no discussion about who has a right to vote. The very fact of such discussion diminishes our democracy. What may be debated is the matter of who is permitted to exercise their right to vote. But the onus is on those who wish to deny this permission to make a case which is valid within the context of an overarching set of democratic principles.

I have yet to see any such case for denying prisoners the opportunity to exercise their democratic right.


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