Dostoevsky wrote that "the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons". If that is right, British civilisation is none too healthy just now. Record numbers of inmates are crammed into the jails. The difficulties of sardine-tin rehabilitation are exacerbated by a doggedly vengeful refusal to reward convicts who mend their ways or show regard for others. Last spring Gordon Brown vetoed an overdue rise in the meagre pay prisoners can earn by spending time productively. This month a tabloid scare story led to certain social events being banned. But the most gratuitous stricture of all predates any red-top campaign. In a report last week a UN committee warned that the voting ban in prisons may be at odds with the international covenant on civil and political rights. The ban dates back to a musty statute from 1870 - a time when the franchise was a privilege, reserved for a minority. Today the vote is everywhere considered a right - except within jail walls. No one believes disfranchisement is a deterrent; nor does it make sense as a punishment: the purpose of prison is to deprive people of their liberty, not their political voice. Sheer lack of thought meant that - until Strasbourg intervened - the ban often effectively applied to remanded prisoners, not convicted of any crime. If inmates were encouraged to take an interest in society, then perhaps fewer than two-thirds would reoffend on release. As it stands, in more than one sense, they are barred citizens. It is time to give them the vote.
(This article was first published on line at www.guardian.co.uk on Monday 22 September 2008. It appeared in the Editorials & reply section of the print edition of the Guardian on Monday 22 September 2008.).