Tag Archives: Equality

Prisoners and the Right To Vote in the UK & the USA

4 Nov

“It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison. Frankly, when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote.” 

– David Cameron, during Prime Ministers Question Time, November 3, 2010.

David Cameron’s position on voting rights for prisoners has the merit of consistency. Asked a question in the House of Commons some two years ago about whether the incarceration of convicted prisoners should result in a loss of inmates’ rights, he responded that voting rights for prisoners made him “physically ill”.

Since then, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK must end its ban on votes for prisoners after the government lost its ultimate appeal.

David Cameron has now pledged once again at prime minister’s questions that his coalition government would never give the prisoners the right to vote. While government now has around three weeks to decide its response to the European court ruling, the prime minister’s insistence last month that “No one should be under any doubt – prisoners are not getting the vote under this government” leaves little doubt about the substance of that official reaction.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC that “It is very clear that most people in the political world in the UK don’t want to give votes to prisoners.”

However, the scale of disenfranchisement in the United States leaves the UK looking positively benevolent. America’s entrenched commitment to mass incarceration and a punitive penal system has long been acknowledged by criminologists. While the nation is home to just 1 in 20 of the world’s population, it imprisons no less than quarter of the whole world’s prison population, with a staggering total of 2.3 million of its citizens behind bars.

One element of American penality will play a key role in the forthcoming presidential election. When voters go the polls this Tuesday, an astonishing total of 5.85 million Americans will be forbidden to exercise the fundamental democratic right to vote. They have been stripped of that right because of what it officially labelled “felon disenfranchisement” – that is, those laws which restricting voting rights for anyone convicted of a criminal offence labelled as a “felony”.

Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? 5.85 million people have no say in the
Presidential Election, due to felony disenfranchisement
(creative commons licence)

A range of state laws bar both felons and in some cases ex-felons from the right to vote. Approximately three quarters of those who are disenfranchised are no longer even behind bars, but are subject to probation supervision or on parole.

Surprisingly for a UK observer, most disenfranchised American citizens are not actually in prison. Almost half of the total number of those barred from voting have already served their full sentence, and are no longer subject to the supervision of the correctional services.

According to the Sentencing Project, ex-offenders in the eleven US states which disenfranchise people after they have served their sentences comprise almost 45 percent of the total of the population denied the right to vote. According to research by the Sentencing Project, an American criminal justice campaigning group which promoting reforms in sentencing policy:

“The number of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and over 5.85 million in 2010.”

In short, 1 of every 40 adults of the USA’s total population of voting age is denied the right to vote due to a current (or previous) conviction for a felony. By my calculations, if the UK was to disenfranchise offenders at a similar rate, we would deny the right to vote around 1.15 million UK offenders and ex-offenders.

The dynamic of race plays a significant role felony disenfranchisement. The harsh reality that US imprisonment rates are disproportionately higher for African American men may hardly come as a shock, considering that America was embroiled in a civil war over the continuation of  slavery until just two lifetimes ago.

African American males are imprisoned at a rate of six times that of their white counterparts. More than two million black citizens are subject to the control of the correctional system, whether in custody, on probation, or on parole. This systematic network of what has been labelled as “racialized social control” (Alexander 2011:20) also encompasses voting rights.

It is astonishing to learn that now less that 1 in every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised. This is a rate over four times higher than the rate for non-African Americans.

In three states (Florida, Kentucky and Virginia), more than one in five black citizens is denied the right to vote. The disproportionate representation of African Americans within the US penal system means that felony disenfranchisement has a significant impact on the representation of African Americans in the US political system.

There is some evidence that African Americans vote predominantly for Democratic candidates. In a presidential election which promises to be as tightly fought as the current one, African American disenfranchisement may significantly impact the Democratic vote.

Abraham Lincoln’s oft-quoted description of democracy in the United States as embodying “government of the people, by the people, for the people” rings somewhat hollow to almost six million citizens denied the right to vote.

References

ALEXANDER, M. (2011) ‘The New Jim Crow’, The American Prospect, pp. 19-21, Washington: The Justice Policy Institute.

UGGEN, C., SHANNON, S. & MANZA, J. (2012), State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010. Washington DC: The Sentencing Project.

WOOD, E. (2008), Restoring the right to vote. New York: Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

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Inspector Gadget And The Politics Of Gender

18 Feb

“The Maddest Diversity Nonsense Ever”

Women make up 51% of the overall population in England and Wales. However, women’s representation in the major agencies which constitute the criminal justice system varies.

In the Crown Prosecution Service, for example, women represented 66% all staff on 31 March 2010. The Magistracy comprised 51% women in 2009/10. Women were just over 12% of senior judges. Data for the Probation Service indicate that women represented 71% of probation staff in 2009.

In policing, however, women are under-represented. They comprise just 26% of the 143,734 police officers in post (based on full-time equivalent posts) in 2009/10. At senior ranks, it was rarer still to find women officers. Only 13% of senior police officers were female.

Frances Heidensohn,  in her chapter on Gender and Policing in the ‘Handbook of Policing’ edited by Tim Newburn, argued that the police have had a clear awareness of gender, though it is understood in an explicit male way. She summarised police attitudes by pointing to the “world of old fashioned machismo” within which they function.

Old fashioned machismo notwithstanding, one might be forgiven for expecting rational human beings interested in equality to be concerned about any situation where women were not equally represented in the workforce. This is the concern that was articulated by Denise Milani, Director of the Diversity and Citizen Focus Directorate in London’s Metropolitan Police Service.

Earlier this week, she informed staff that she was “keen to learn staff views on the progress the MPS has made around gender equality”. To mark International Women’s Day 2012, she invited officers and police staff to be creative and record their views in verse.

Poems had to focus on the themes of recruitment, retention and progression in the MPS; creating a gender sensitive working environment; or successfully managing gender diverse teams. They had to provide the DCFD director with insight on the progress made with the ‘Gender Agenda’ and a offer a positive future vision for the MPS.

This poetry competition clearly aimed to sharpen the focus on the dynamics of gender within the Met. Responses have been illuminating, and show the depth of cultural resistance to gender equality within the Met. This has been well illustrated by the outpouring of neanderthal masculinity that has surfaced on Inspector Gadget’s blog.

The Inspector’s blog has been offering its subversive take on modern policing for 6 years. Gadget is thought to be a serving inspector in a southern English force, which he calls  “Ruralshire” in the blog. His Twitter profile accurately describes him as dispensing “weapons grade cynicism” and he claims (with some justification in terms of the blog traffic statistics) the title of “Britain’s most widely-read police Blogger”.

Gadget’s blog notes that it has chalked up almost 9 million hits, which suggests that his acerbic observations resonate with a very wide audience. His blog, he notes online, received the accolade of being  named one of Britain’s Top 40 blogs by The Times, who noted that his writing was ‘provocative stuff, and as an insight into life on the policing front line in 2010, it’s invaluable’.

Gadget cheerfully labels Milani’s poetry initiative as a “piece of utter nonsense”, while simultaneously acknowledging:

“I love this kind of stuff. It lends such credibility to my claims that senior officers are all mad, and they have completely forgotten what policing is all about.”

His comments do not quite amount to an admission that he hankers for a return to the days when police officers were men and women knew their place, but he is not far from saying so. He positions himself as a realist, unburdened with politically correct notions of diversity which in Gadget’s world appear to be a gross irrelevance in terms of the daily lived experience of police officers.

“I particularly like reading internal communications like this when I have just come in from a 10 hour marathon shift during which the local drunken yobs have been trying to give us a good kicking, or if we have been dealing with a fatal road crash.”

Alternatively, as that great paper of record, the Daily Mail, observes, “It’s enough to make the hard men of the Sweeney choke on their cigars and double whiskies.”

More than 500 comments have been added to Gadget’s blog in a short period. Clearly his views resonate with many. Stereotypical attitudes towards gender are given free rein.  Some of the all-too-predictable comments made included these:

From Jeremy Beadles Withered Hand comes the assertion that diversity initiatives are a kind of smokescreen for gay women to gain preferment: “A WPC friend of mine got invited to a similar women in policing conference and told me that in actual fact it was literally just a meeting for butch, man-hating lesbians to talk about how much they hate men and how they can use their sexuality to get promoted, and then tried it on with her.”

What these critiques of gender equality initiatives may lack in subtlety, nuance and reflection, they make up for in their strength of emotion. Two of the milder examples are from Taff Taff and Bobby.

From Taff Taff: “Anyone who seriously takes part in this competition is a twat who needs to be put into a a rocket and fired into the sun, I am sick of this type of shit.”

From Bobby: “That beggars belief. I am stunned at that. What a pile of shite. Walks off shaking head.”

The comments would have been incomplete without a man indignantly asserting that it is, of course, men who are the real victims of discrimination within the police.  An example from the many who make this assertion comes from Pathe: “No real research has been carried out into how men are discriminated against in the Police”.

Inspector Gadget adds a coda to his orginal comments: “I have just read the post again. I can categorically say that this is the maddest diversity nonsense we have ever featured on this Blog…  I would like to hear from more female officers to see what they think of this, in between making tea for the lads of course!”

The police have made considerable strides in the past two decades on the way in which crimes such as sexual abuse and domestic violence are policed. Even so, the response to Gadget’s blog suggests that the dawn of gender equality appears to be some way off. It clearly remains a live issue. There are a range of entrenched views and a cultural reluctance to acknowledge diversity as an issue.

Anyone who remembers Roger Graef’s classic ‘Talking Blues’ on police canteeen culture may conclude that, if supporting gender equality amounts to “the maddest diversity nonsense”, then two decades down the line from Graef’s original account, not a great deal has changed.