Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill - Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill Contents


Appendix 5: Note of visit to HMP Downview and HMP High Down


Summary Note of Visit to HMP Downview and HMP High Down 11 July 2013

OVERVIEW

Those present were:

  • Ms Lorely Burt MP
  • Lord Dholakia
  • Mr Nick Gibb MP (Chair)
  • Lord Norton of Louth
  • Lord Peston
  • Sîan Woodward (Clerk)
  • Christopher Johnson (Clerk)
  • Kirstine Szifris (Committee Specialist)

Members of the Committee visited two prisons in the South Central region; HMP High Down and HMP Downview. HMP High Down is a category B, male, local prison primarily holding remand prisoners, but with a significant number of sentenced prisoners. HMP Downview is a female, closed training prison with a small YOI unit that is due to be closed.

The representatives of the Committee met two groups of prisoners, one in each prison. The first session was held at HMP Downview with 16 female prisoners. This was followed by a discussion with 9 male prisoners at HMP High Down.

HMP DOWNVIEW

Members talked to a randomly selected panel of female prisoners, serving sentences of between two years three months and life; in addition two prisoners were serving Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences. . None of the prisoners were on remand; one indicated that she had been sentenced for non-payment of a fine, but was unaware that she therefore retained the right to vote. About half the prisoners said that they had voted before their imprisonment; all indicated that they would vote in future were the opportunity to arise.

The prevailing view of the participants was that prisoners should be allowed to vote. They saw their disenfranchisement as an extra punishment that was tantamount to being judged twice. All the prisoners taking part in the meeting were clear that they remained part of society, that they should retain the right to vote, and that if they had this right they would exercise it. They confirmed that this was the view of the vast majority of prisoners, though it was suggested that there were a few inmates in HMP Downview who opposed prisoner voting.

Several female prisoners noted that they had children and families for whom they felt responsible—they wanted to stop their children making the same mistakes. It was therefore important that they retain links to the wider community, and in particular that they be able to vote so as to exercise some influence on government on behalf of their children and families, thereby giving their children a voice. Prisoners argued that one of the roles of the prison system was to build bridges with the outside world, and it was important that they had a say in how society is run.

One Scottish prisoner highlighted the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, which would be of permanent importance to her, and in which she should have a say. It was also noted that a Dutch prisoner in Downview had exercised her right to a postal vote in a recent Dutch general election.

Others pointed out that they continued to pay tax while imprisoned, and so were affected by governmental decisions in the same way as those at liberty. They were also affected by cuts in public spending, which had led to cuts in courses for prisoners and changes to the way prisons are managed. They were indirectly impacted by the restrictions on pay for prison staff, insofar as those restrictions affected morale and staffing in the prison service.

More generally, the prisoners pointed out that they would all, even those serving long sentences, be released one day, and they would then be expected to re-integrate with society. They should be given education to prepare them for release, and classes built around voting could be part of this. There was nothing for those serving long sentences to do, and getting them interested in politics helped them get through their sentences as well as promoting rehabilitation. One prisoner serving an IPP sentence emphasised the demoralising effect of an indeterminate sentence, and argued that being allowed to vote would give her some sense of being able to influence public affairs.

Asked whether any restrictions on prisoner voting would be appropriate, there was a general view that a ban based on sentence length was too crude and would be unfair in its effects. In particular, sentencing guidelines changed regularly, most recently in February 2012, with the result that prisoners convicted of the same crime got different sentences depending on when they were convicted.

Most of the prisoners also opposed the suggestion that judges, when sentencing, should be empowered to add loss of the right to vote to the sentence. They argued that judges could be biased, and in any case their job was to decide on an appropriate term of imprisonment, not the further punishment of loss of voting rights.

Some of the prisoners were open to the suggestion that prisoners should complete a course in citizenship to earn back the right to vote. It was pointed out that many prisoners had been alienated from society, for instance by drug addiction, before coming to prison, whilst others had been too young to be engaged in politics. It was suggested that while in prison many prisoners engage in education for the first time, and that they are far more open to learning. Providing the opportunity to engage in a citizenship course might prove to be a successful aspect of rehabilitation. Others saw the idea of courses in citizenship as patronising, and contrary to the basic principle that as British citizens they had the right to vote—prisoners argued that no other British citizen had to take a course to be able to vote. If they wanted to know what was happening they could watch the television news.

Another suggestion was that voting rights could be linked to status and privileges—for instance, being reinstated when a prisoner was moved to an open prison as part of the resettlement phase of the sentence. Prisoners under such conditions were deemed to be suitable for working in the community. Therefore it was argued that they prisoners should be allowed to have say in the community in which they worked.

However, such a system would mean re-enfranchisement was linked to administrative decisions about prisoner status. There was concern that it would also be unfair in its effects, since not all those eligible for open status were in fact given such status. It was suggested that politicians sent to prison in recent years had been given favourable treatment by being sent straight to open conditions.

HMP HIGH DOWN

Members talked to a selected panel of male prisoners; most were convicted prisoners, serving sentences of between 18 months and two years; two were on remand (but were unaware that they retained the right to vote); one was serving an IPP sentence. Some indicated that they had voted in the past.

The prisoners were unanimous that prisoners should enjoy the right to vote: if the principle of universal suffrage was once accepted, why should it be limited in respect of prisoners? Voting was a fundamental right, and the rest was detail. Representation too was a fundamental right and they, as citizens, should be represented in Parliament. Some accepted that there were circumstances where the removal of the right to vote might be legitimate, for example, if they were mentally unfit to exercise it. One prisoner said that he thought serious offences such as murder should preclude people from voting although he was not backed up by his fellow prisoners.

It was argued that many prisoners had contributed to society before their imprisonment, and that the main purpose of prison itself was to rehabilitate them so as to prepare them for their return to society. It didn't make sense to deprive them of the right to vote while in prison—if it did, it would be illogical to reinstate voting rights upon release, since the original crime would still have been committed.

Asked whether there could be limits on the right to vote, some accepted that certain categories of prisoner, for instance those serving life sentences, should lose the right to vote. It was also suggested that those serving extremely long sentences were withdrawn from society for so long that it might be possible to take away the right to vote.

The prisoners criticised the attitude of MPs, particularly those who voted against prisoner voting rights in 2011—it was suggested that there was no logic in this decision, and that MPs simply voted this way because they "didn't like prisoners".

The prisoners also opposed the approach proposed in the draft bill. It was argued that sentence length was too crude as a way of determining who should vote—prisoners convicted of drug offences or fraud could end up with the same sentence. It was also that the current disqualification was capricious and unfair: repeat offenders in particular were frequently in and out of prison, and it was pure chance whether a period of imprisonment coincided with an election.

There was opposition to linking voting rights to enhanced privileges or category status, since these were artificial and could change over time.

There was general agreement that the exercise of voting rights could play a useful part in rehabilitation, for example by means of courses in civic responsibility which could help to reintegrate prisoners in society. Many prisoners had never cared about voting before their conviction—prison gave them time to sort out their lives, and the support necessary to enable them to earn qualifications. In the process they became politically engaged for the first time.

One prisoner said that he had been a heroin addict from the age of 16. In prison he had cleaned himself up and got qualifications, and he was now due for release in 11 weeks. He saw no reason why he should not have had the right to vote while going through this process.

Another prisoner said that he now worked with other prisoners, promoting and organising educational programmes. Prisoners who contributed in this way were crucial in making prisons work, and should be treated as valued members of society. Restoring the right to vote would be seen as a gesture of good will.

MEETING WITH PRISON STAFF

Over lunch the Committee representatives met various staff members including uniformed officers, governors and education staff.


 
previous page contents next page


© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 18 December 2013