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In the wake of one of the most interesting election campaigns for many years it hard to believe it is just weeks since polling day. The collective voice got what we asked for – an unclear outcome – and this has resulted in radical changes to the political landscape. While the campaign now seems ages away, people are still talking about it.

Part of that is down to the outcome; the obsessive watch for cracks in the coalition, the Labour leadership campaign that will take months to come to fruition. But it also because the campaign itself animated ordinary people. On the one hand it was an election dominated by the national TV debates watched by millions. On the other, the results demonstrated that the power of a local base, that little can replace the dogged decent local politician working the streets.

The UK’s offices, streets and cafes are still full of post-election chatter. The campaign raised plenty of issues to complain about: the media’s obsession with, well, itself and the candidates’ evasiveness about where the deep spending cuts would fall. But this is part of the point of a good election, where - although we may differ in making our choice - we come together to speculate, gripe and, eventually, vote.

Imagine what it feels like to be outside of this - or any - democratic conversation? Imagine being consistently told to accept responsibility and the consequences of your own actions, while at the same time having very limited power to shape your basic surroundings or to demonstrate your capacity for change. This is the reality for the UK prison population.

Rest assured, this article is not an extended argument for giving prisoners the vote. Although I do favour change in this respect, voting reform is in my view a (very important) sideshow; an anchor to the deeper questions of user empowerment within prisons.

Instead, the organisation I set up and run – staffed by ex-offenders – is working towards something that may ultimately be much more difficult than extending the franchise: creating a prison system where inmates are more empowered and deeply engaged in the services they rely on. Where prisoners are able to take greater responsibility in developing services that will reduce re-offending. In a forthcoming report, we argue that existing prison councils should be radically redesigned around some of the principles and methods used in other democratic forums.

After 13 years of a Labour government and now with a new coalition government in Westminster, we are beginning to see what the policy differences between all the main parties mean in reality – whether on immigration, tax, benefits or indeed crime. But read the manifestos and you will find a great deal of consensus around what is now a ‘bread and butter’ question for policy-makers of all political shades: what enhanced role could citizens play in shaping our public services and communities?

Driving this agenda is a concern about the legitimacy and accountability of state institutions and their partners. The evidence shows that communities and public services that effectively engage with users are better: they are more efficient, more popular and promote well-being. There is a deeper recognition that our public services are struggling to accommodate the needs and expectations of 21st century Britain. This is not surprising given many of our structures and ways of working were shaped some 60 years ago.

If this is true for hospitals and schools, it is even more so in relation to the prison service. Many governors are trying to operate a modern system within Victorian buildings, with all the obstacles this presents. Reform of prisons tends to be behind the curve, with relatively little public pressure driving improvements.

The Commission on 2020 Public Services based at the RSA concludes that one of the central shifts we need to be making is from the state as a passive protector against social risk to an active enabler of citizens, where services ‘nurture and mobilize what people can do’.  User Voice believes that nowhere is this more needed than in our approach to the criminal justice system.

At the same time, the Deputy Leader of the new government has outlined what he claims will be the biggest reform to the British political system since 1882. Nick Clegg argues that government will not be insecure about giving more power to citizens, a theme which runs through Cameron’s vision of a big society. So will there here be space for prisoners?

As part of our research User Voice commissioned a survey designed to examine whether the establishment of a prison council had any impact on prisoners’ intention to vote in national elections (should they be able to).

Of 561 prisoners at the three sites, only 35 per cent had voted in national elections before their jail sentence. Since the establishment of the User Voice councils, there has been a dramatic change in prisoners’ voting intentions; with 53 per cent of all prisoners and 79 per cent of those involved in a council saying they intended to vote on release. Some of the prisoners involved in the councils had previously voted outside; over 60 per cent of those involved in councils who had not previously voted say they intended to do so in future general elections.

For some time there has been a discussion of the merits of otherwise of enfranchising prisoners. Those against reform argue that by committing offences, prisoners have waived their right as citizens to vote. Others, point out that punishment does not mean prisoners are not citizens. That the issue of enfranchisement is closely linked, not only to our human rights, but also to rehabilitation and resettlement. If we are to keep prisoners looking outwards and engaged, they need as many incentives to do so as possible. Our survey here was not intended to simply make the case for voting reform but to explore what prisoners actually go through. It reveals a surprising enthusiasm amongst inmates and the link between the internal democratic structures suggest a ‘democratic’ habit emerging. Can the big society, will democratic reform be secure enough to emabrace this?


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