Voting from behind bars – more changes on the way?

For many UK politicians, the question of votes for prisoners is politically toxic.  David Cameron said the prospect made him feel physically ill and when the issue has come up in Parliament it’s been a rare person who has ventured an opinion in favour.

But the tide could be moving in favour of the franchise for those behind bars.

UK legislation has long excluded prisoners from voting.  This blanket ban was challenged back in 2005 in Hirst vs United Kingdom with the European Court of Human Rights ruling that a whole group could not be excluded in that way.  The government however was reluctant to make any changes arguing that part of the punishment of being in prison was losing those sort of rights.  The stalemate on the issue continued until 2017 when a handful  of prisoners, those out on temporary licence, gained the franchise.  It’s worth saying here that those on remand –  in a prison but not actually convicted of anything – have always retained the right to vote, whether aware of it or not.

The number of those on temporary licence is small enough for few people to notice.  But changes in Scotland and potentially in Wales this year could open the door to more pressure to bring prisoners into the electorate.  In Scotland a Bill to, among other things,  extend voting rights to certain prisoners – those with a sentence up to 12 months –   gained royal assent in early April and is now a law.  That means the right to vote in local elections and the poll for the Scottish Parliament.  There won’t be polling stations in prisons.  Instead inmates will be registered at their old address and will make their choice by post or proxy.

In Wales another Bill on voting will be discussed in the Senedd  plenary session today (8  April).  The Welsh Government is intending to add amendments so that prisoners with sentences of up to four years could vote in Welsh local elections.

Opinions on voting for prisoners vary dramatically.  In some countries voting rights for prisoners are widespread.  This includes Ireland, which saw inmates vote for the first time in 2007, and Canada.  Some countries, such as Ukraine, set up polling stations inside prisons, sending the votes back to the prisoners’ home areas.

Yet in other parts of the world it is not just prisoners who can’t vote also but those who have served their sentence.  In the US some States ban those with felony convictions from ever voting again. (Felonies are the serious crimes)  This is being challenged with a potentially significant court case later this month.  In Florida,  voters supported a plan to allow give the vote back to a large number of ex -felons. (In the US there are often referendum type votes on policy issues at election time).  The State legislature thought differently however and came up with a plan to block the scheme.  Now a Florida Court is to rule on whether the legislature or the voters will get their way. The whole thing is all very technical,  but the upshot is that the franchise could be extended in a meaningful way.  And of course civil rights campaigners from elsewhere in the US are keen to build on any success in Florida.

Over time democracies  have generally widened the franchise.  We’ve seen changes to voting ages and we’ve seen gender, class and financial restrictions removed.  It will be interesting to see what further changes are made or resisted when it comes to those in jail.

Edge Hill University’s politics courses include a specialist module on Elections and Voting Systems as well as material about analysing democracies and constitutional change.

Crime and nourishment – the link between food and offending behaviour

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Hazel Flight, Edge Hill University; John Marsden, Edge Hill University, and Sean Creaney, Edge Hill University

It is well known that eating a balanced diet is of vital importance for maintaining good health and well-being. It is also one of the great social pleasures of life. Yet, far too many young people in prisons are consuming a poor diet, lacking in nutrition.

Alarmingly, research suggests over half of food items available for purchase in some prisons in the UK and the US are “high in fat or sugar”. It has also been suggested that in the US, prison food has been described as “scant, joyless, and unsavoury”. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Sant’angelo dei lombardi in Italy is said to have one of the best fed prisons in the world, where prisoners work to produce organic fruit and vegetables and leave healthier than when admitted.

Poor nutrition can impact on concentration and learning and may result in episodes of violent or aggressive behaviour. In prison, a bad diet can also contribute to increased rates of poor mental and physical health compared with the general population.

To tackle this problem, a new UK government strategy aims to provide young people with healthy eating advice on arrival in prison. Inmates up to the age of 21 will be provided with nutritional guidance so they can make “informed choices” about their diets.




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Poor diet, aggression and impulsivity

The amount and nutritional value of food available in prisons and the dietary choices prisoners make has a significant influence on the quality of a prisoner’s life. Consuming highly processed and sugary foods can lead to sudden peaks and troughs in the amount of glucose in a person’s blood. This can cause fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia and is even a risk factor for depression – particularly in men. It has been shown that a diet of whole foods can offer protection against depression.

Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals can lead to a number of issues. For example, low levels of iron, magnesium and zinc can lead to increased anxiety, low mood and poor concentration, leading to attention deficits and sleep disturbance. Omega 3 is required to improve cognitive functioning.

Recent government policies have recognised the problem of additives and the high sugar content of food, with the introduction of the sugar tax and moves to address the use of colourings, which have been found to have a negative effect on behaviour and hyperactivity. A recent example of the UK government’s willingness to intervene in the purchasing decisions of young people is the outlawing of energy drink sales to under-16s.

The types of problems associated with a poor diet, such as aggression, attention deficits and hyperactivity can make impulsive behaviour more likely. Studies have shown that “high levels of impulsivity are connected with high and stable levels of offending”.

Addressing the problem

Lucy Vincent – a freelance journalist with a background in both food and fashion – has started a campaign to address the need for better food in UK prisons. She believes that decent nutrition has the power to positively impact self-esteem, health, learning and development. Young people in prison are likely to have struggled with these issues and providing a better diet is an important step in improving their emotional health and well-being.

But there are obvious difficulties in improving the diets of young offenders. For example, Public Health England suggests that providing a balanced diet costs £5.99 per person, per day. Yet some prisons have food budgets as low as £1.87 per person, per day. There are obvious economies of scale to take into account, but providing a balanced diet for young offenders would still be a costly exercise – at a time when other parts of the prison service are starved of funds.

With experienced prison officers leaving the service and their remaining colleagues protesting over unacceptable levels of violence, improving the diet of young people in prison will be difficult to achieve.

But if the UK is to come close to breaking the cycle of reoffending, it needs to meet the basic needs of young people in prison and respect the basic human right of adequate nutrition. Government advice for young inmates is one thing, but those in prison need to have healthy food to choose from if they are to have any hope of staying healthy in jail.The Conversation

Hazel Flight, Programme Lead Nutrition and Health, Edge Hill University; John Marsden, Senior Lecturer in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Edge Hill University, and Sean Creaney, Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.