Photo by: People Against Prisons Aotearoa

What is the purpose of prison?

Is it to solely to punish people who break our laws and harm other people, by taking away their freedom? Or is it to separate those people from general society and work with them to reintegrate back into our communities in a safe and meaningful way?

No doubt it should be a mixture of both, but too often the attitudes of people, and politicians, lean heavily towards to the punitive former.

The recent and ongoing controversy around prisoners voting rights is a perfect example of this dichotomy and is the latest political football being tossed around by parties vying for leverage with the 2020 election looming.

The cat was let loose among the pigeons earlier this month, when the Waitangi Tribunal urged the government to change the law to allow prisoners the right to vote – just in time for the election. Their motive is to empower Maori, for whom a disproportionate number of people reside behind bars.

I agree with that prisoners should have voting rights.

I believe it to be a necessary step towards instilling a sense of agency and positive societal participation towards their inevitable reintroduction into the community.

Many Kiwis do not share my view. The public response to the campaign has been polarizing to put it mildly, and in some corners downright hysterical.

An NZ FIRST poll asking whether prisoners should have the right to right offered an eye-opening microcosm of attitudes towards the issue.

“They deserve hard labour, water, bread, and one blanket – and a battoning for being eggs. They fu😬ked up. Do ur time and drink a cup of concrete. Vote! GTFOH!”

I’m sure a good “battoning” will make the crooks think twice about jaywalking next time…

“Nope. They’re incarcerated for a reason and lost all right to basic human rights when they got caught being f@kwits.”

Because treating prisoners like animals is really going to reduce recidivist offending…

“NO!! They commit crime, they do the time. Tough if Maori or anyone else doesn’t like it. DON’T COMMIT CRIME then u will have your right to vote.”

Let’s completely ignore the consequences of colonialism on Maori and the resulting intergenerational poverty shall we?

“If they’re in jail … then no , they’ve committed a crime and must pay the price…. voting is a privilege.”

Are all crimes made equal? Should the person caught selling weed to her friends have her democratic responsibilities stripped away from her?

“Might as well give them take away food when ever they want, Sky sports and movie channels hell even the old fish n’chips Friday.”

The issue I have with attitudes like these is the utter lack of perspective and empathy. I’m not suggesting we need to give serial killers a hug, but the assumption that the justice system is this infallible totem of fairness is dangerously naive.

Obviously some crime is more harmful than other legal breaches, but throwing all prisoners in the same basket does an injustice to a complex and vital debate.

Despite the significant majority of Winnie’s poll being against the idea, there was an outspoken handful who offered more pragmatic evaluations:

“Yes if a minor offence..No if its a serious murder, molesters etc.”

I think it’s a slippery slope if we start categorizing crimes and degrees of freedom but at least this person is open to the debate!

“Maybe it should be compulsory for prisoners to vote, watch parliament TV and have lessons on politics 😳. Captive audience 🤔Might increase the numbers of voters significantly.”

Now I suspect this comment is a bit tongue-in-cheek but heck – they might be on to something!

“Considering that most rich criminals get away with their crimes so they get to vote (think fraud, embezzlement, etc and how rich people get lenient sentences such as home d diversion etc as they are model citizens) then yes criminals should have the right to vote.”

Ahhh, a person after my own heart. Why strip the desperate man who steals cigarettes from a dairy of the right to vote, while white collar criminals barely get slapped with a wet bus ticket for the far more socially destructive crime of tax evasion?

“People are in the prison because society failed to bring them up to become a good citizen – Yes, we must give voting rights.”

We often talk about individual responsibility but there is also a collective societal responsibility to ensure people have equal opportunities to flourish. Perhaps, like this person has suggested, society has failed people in prison and stripping them of their human rights is not going to help them course-correct.

“People who don’t vote are not living up to their responsibilities as citizens. Prisoners should be required to live up to those responsibilities, along with the rest of us. Don’t tell me it’s a right, and not a responsibility. It’s actually both, and the sooner we get prisoners to understand these concepts, the sooner they will reintegrate as useful citizens.”

This final comment epitomizes a key aspect of the argument I am presenting, that by empowering prisoners with a sense of their human rights and civic responsibilities we will offer an alternative to a life of crime.

Promoting civic participation in prison may establish a positive cycle going forward for those in jail, and their families and communities. We know that establishing early ongoing patterns of voting helps entrench the behaviour for the rest of a person’s life. This is particularly important for our rangatahi behind bars, who need to feel like there is a future for them when they get out and that they have a say in it.

The “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach is not reducing crime rates or making our communities safer. Maybe, just maybe, if the men and women in our prisons begin to feel a real sense of agency, of belonging and power in our society, then their visit inside will be a one-off rather than a revolving door.

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