Melanie Phillips

3 March 2004

The demoralisation of our jails

Published in: Daily Mail

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Sending someone to prison is supposed to achieve various things. It acts as a deterrent, protects the public, and (hopefully) trains inmates for a more law- abiding life. But at its very core, the purpose of prison is to punish. Without this central element, imprisonment becomes meaningless and justice itself is mocked.

Yet there seems to be a determined effort to negate the element of punishment in prison altogether. A group of politicians, clergy and prison reformers have formed a campaign, wittily called Barred from Voting, to give prisoners the right to vote. Their attempt is being backed by human rights legislation.

This right was taken away from sentenced prisoners in 1870 by the Victorians, who believed above all in moral responsibility. Their modern successors appear not to understand what that concept means.

One campaign member, the Tory MP Peter Bottomley, said: 'Voting in prison can be a useful first step towards engaging in society'. He thus missed the point altogether. Prison is not a means to engage inmates in society but to disengage them. It removes them from society until they are deemed to have earned their passage back.

This means prisoners have lost the moral authority to vote. They have effectively broken the contract of citizenship. That is the meaning of being an outlaw. And before they can rejoin the community of citizens and enjoy its benefits, they have to repay their debt to society, which they do through the punishment of imprisonment.

Yet people like Mr Bottomley appear to view prison simply in terms of its benefit to prisoners. Such reformers argue that if prisoners had the vote, politicians would pay more attention to what happens inside this most neglected of our public services.

The idea that prisoners, who are excluded from society on account of their anti-social behaviour, should be able to influence politicians running that society would strike most people as an intolerable affront to the notion of justice.

What is missing among these campaigners is any real moral sense, any grasp of the connection between behaviour and its consequences that lies at the heart of morality and of social order. The Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten, for example, said prisoners needed to be equipped with 'social skills required by responsible citizens'. True; they should be taught a trade, and to read and write. But voting is not a skill. It is part of the contract of obligations between a citizen and the state.

Voting is loosely regarded as a right. But prisoners have no rights as citizens. These - including, by definition, the right to liberty - are forfeit until they have paid their dues and return to society.

The problem is that our human rights culture has confused the privileges we enjoy as citizens with fundamental human rights, such as the right to life. Those rights are indeed universal and cannot be taken away from any human being, whatever his circumstances. But these are very different from the universal franchise, which is less than a century old and not a right on which our humanity depends but instead a privilege requiring responsibility by those who exercise it.

But the human rights culture has dissolved notions of duty or responsibility. It is the totem of a society which holds that everyone has an equal right to happiness, comfort and fulfilment. Anything that frustrates this is cruel and inhuman.

So punishment, in depriving prisoners of any material privileges, is judged to be cruel and inhuman. The old idea that prison should involve austerity, discipline and work to bring about moral improvement has been progressively abandoned. Loss of liberty itself is seen as punishment enough. Any additional deprivation of the privileges of citizenship is seen as uncivilised. Instead, prison has to be made as much like normal life as possible. Indeed, Her Majesty's Prison Service has now become the National Offender Management Service.

As a result, some prisoners' lives are made more comfortable than the lives of many people on the outside. This is not to say prison conditions should be anything other than decent and civilised. But the idea of austerity seems to have been abandoned altogether.

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About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Melanie Phillips
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