When MPs consider prisoners’ right to vote they should have in mind who prisoners are, and how many should never even have been locked up.

Two thirds of women in British prisons are there for non-violent offences. Most are inside for fewer than six months for shoplifting, non-payment of fines, benefit fraud, and offences linked to drug addiction and sex work.  A quarter had no previous convictions.

Over half are mothers.  Every year 17,000 children are deprived of their mothers by prison, which Baroness Corston has described as “often nothing short of catastrophic”.

Over half are themselves victims of violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse.  Some, like Layla Ibrahim and Gail Sherwood, are rape victims who were disbelieved and are campaigning to clear their name.  Verna Joseph, raped by a gang who threatened to kill her and her daughter if she didn’t bring drugs into Britain commented: “I was sentenced to nine years while my attackers were never arrested.” Women prisoners are subjected to “excessively punitive” treatment that many of us would consider criminal torture.  How else do we describe “separation visits” in a prison main visiting hall where mothers say farewell to their children before they are taken for adoption?  
Black people are 14% of those in prison but only 2% of the overall population. Young Muslims protesting Israel’s bombing of Gaza in 2008-9, and people convicted in the 2011 rebellions that followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan, received significantly harsher sentences than standard. How much are these disparities due to discrimination against people of colour and working class people, especially when they are protestors? Recently released Ben Gunn served many years over his tariff because he fought for prisoners’ rights.  He comments: “Prisoners are part of society, and the treatment we receive is part of society’s standards of in/humanity.  Why shouldn’t we have a say?” Daniel Roque Hall, a severely disabled man nearly died after only seven weeks in prison; he is still in hospital fighting not to be sent back to conditions which amount to a death sentence.
Scores of women self-harm and take their own lives while in prison.  Pauline Campbell, mother of Sarah, one of six women who died in Styal prison in one year, was arrested numerous times for protesting at prison deaths: “The unjust sentencing of vulnerable women; their suffering, and deaths – that is the injustice.  [The] Justice Secretary is the one who should be in the dock, not me.”
One hundred and fifty thousand people in the UK go through prison each year, many more are ex-prisoners, or related to people who are or have been inside.  Cameron said he felt “physically sick” at prisoners gaining the right to vote, and most MPs went along with him.  How sick to dismiss such a large and vulnerable proportion of the population!   Some of the worst criminals have never been locked up: from MPs stealing “expenses”, to bankers and corporations defrauding taxpayers, and prime ministers who should be tried for war crimes.  Should they vote?

Contact: Niki Adams

Legal Action for Women

Crossroads Women’s Centre

25 Wolsey Mews

Kentish Town

London, NW5 2DX

020 7482 2496

07956 316 899

21 November 2012

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