The Colony of ‘Civic Sleepers’

In this latest post from Kris MacPherson, he explores the issue of political disenfranchisement within and beyond prisons.

I recently read a blog post by McNeill and Velasquez (2017) concerning the political neutralisation of prisoners in Chile and their right to vote while still incarcerated. The Chilean government prohibits those citizens sentenced to three years (or more) from participation in elections (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Moreover, anyone remanded pending trial for offences that could result in a prison term of three (or more) years is also banned from voting.

Interestingly, McNeill and Velasquez (2017) point out that anybody serving a prison term of less than three years retains the right to vote in Chilean elections. However, the government has not provided these people with the means of utilising their collective political voice. Clearly, the Chilean government are not in any rush to cull votes from those found guilty of crimes in court.

Sound familiar?

Back in Scotland/Britain, we live in a democracy that holds itself up as a beacon for other nations to emulate. The Greek word demokratia translates as “rule by the demos”; with demos being the Greek term for “common people – those people with little or no economic independence who are politically uneducated” (Clark, Golder and Golder, 2013: 45). Intriguingly, the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that ‘good’ political functions (an aristocracy, for example) can become corrupted and that democracy is the result of this damaged politeia or polity (Clark, Golder and Golder, 2013).

But in what way can a polity become corrupted? Why is democracy a result of this corruption? Is it possible that there are parallels between the ‘corrupted individual’ and the ‘corrupted polity?’ In other words, is it possible that the ‘offender’ is a microcosm of a corrupted polity and the corrupted polity a macrocosm of the spoiled individual? Is it possible that a person is signposted towards criminal behaviour by external social dynamics in the same way that the polity is pointed towards democracy through corruption? In what way does political disenfranchisement impact and influence people in Scotland/UK who are currently incarcerated or have served time in the past?

For starters, I would like to point out that I have never voted in any election (most of my family members have never voted either). Back in my ‘offending days’, I viewed politics as something that did not affect (or apply to) me. Moreover, I saw voting as another way for the police (or someone with more sinister intentions) to obtain my address from the voters roll. To me, most politicians were manipulative, mendacious individuals who would promise a voter the sun, moon and stars but renege the second they assumed office. I didn’t need more individuals like this in my life.

I had enough of them in day-to-day life in the schemes.

In this way, one could very well argue that I was a ‘sleeping citizen’ (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Succinctly, a ‘sleeping citizen’ is someone who has been politically neutralised or silenced because of the fact they have served time in prison. Their denial of voting rights, in turn, avoids discussion or open dialogue on rehabilitation and the prison conditions of the country (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Here is a better definition:

“Whereas medieval punishment imposed civil death on some prisoners (rendering them non-persons), disenfranchisement (only) during imprisonment might be better described as a kind of civil anesthesia; the errant citizen is ‘put to sleep’ while some ‘correction’ takes place that might allow the rehabilitation of citizenship. At the end of this process, released prisoners are expected to have somehow readied themselves for civic revivification” (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017).

In Section three of the UK Representation of the People Act 1983, all prisoners serving prison sentences are prohibited from voting in British elections, irrespective of the length of incarceration (Evans, 2017). However, the Scottish Parliament has only recently been issued authority to legislate on prisoner voting. It refuses to give prisoners the vote. The blanket ban on prisoner voting was challenged more than a decade ago in Hirst v United Kingdom (No.2) in which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that banning prisoners from voting breached Article 3 of Protocol No.1 of the European Convention of Human Rights (The Convention).

Muižnieks (2013) argues that “the indiscriminate ban on voting rights for prisoners should be repealed” (cited in Evans, 2017: 5). The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon commented that a fundamental part of prison is that the inmate loses certain rights (Evans, 2017). The irony is that Scotland wants to remain in the Eurozone with all the benefits that this entails yet does not wish to utilise the Devolution Settlement (Scotland Act 1998) to strike down Acts of the Scottish Parliament that breach the Convention.

Talk about having your cake and eating it.

The Scottish Government put forward a consultation in which they wished to ascertain from the citizenry the sorts of electoral reforms they would like to see but this did not apply to prisoner voting (Evans, 2017). There are several other European nations that permit prisoners to vote with no restrictions, such as Sweden, Spain, Norway, Croatia and Switzerland. I think it would be interesting to take a look at the crime rates and desistance processes of such nations. Evans (2017) points out that the only countries with blanket bans on prisoner voting are Russia, Hungary, Georgia, Estonia, Bulgaria and Armenia (all former USSR/Soviet Bloc nations). I wonder if this has anything to do with Alex Salmond’s new chat show on RT?

Just kidding!

Not only are people in Scottish prisons prohibited from political participation but the prison experience, in many cases, renders people more ‘criminally-challenged’ than before. This is known as ‘dehabilitation’ (Scott and Flynn, 2014). It is the idea that prison suppresses rehabilitative conditions to the extent where prisoners evolve to become better criminals. The prisons abstention from direction/intervention enables inmates to develop their criminal repertoire and establish contacts they can utilise in the community to perpetrate new illegal ventures, increasing the likelihood of recidivism post-release.

Friedman (1993) states that no amount of new prisons or new laws can stop the crime problem. He argues it is a cultural issue that “is part of us, our evil twin, our shadow; our own society produced it” (cited in Gilligan, 2000: 14). If it is a cultural issue, is voter disenfranchisement amongst prisoners part of this process? How do we re-integrate those who have served time in prison when “they were never integrated in the first place” (Wacquant, 2010: 612)? Rotman (1990) argues that the issue with rehabilitating ‘sleepers’ is that the supposed rehabilitative process is more ‘authoritarian’ rather than ‘anthropocentric’ (cited in McNeill and Velasquez, 2017).

Authoritarian rehabilitation entails the exercise of power while anthropocentric rehabilitation outlines individualised model of state/citizen dialogue. This link with McNeill and Schinkel’s (2015) notion of ‘tertiary desistance’ where the individual is restored to an inclusive position in society. The stages of ‘primary desistance’ (behaviour) and ‘secondary desistance’ (identity) precede the tertiary desistance stage (McNeill and Schinkel, 2015).

However, I would like to offer the view that authoritarian rehabilitation will never work. Many people in prison have come through a lot of childhood trauma and lived life in a way that would scare, sicken or shock much of society. Nevertheless, many are still people with real emotions, hopes and dreams. Many are proud people who have suffered big knocks and still dusted themselves off. For someone to dictate to them how they should live or view life is not going to amount to much. The fact that many of the prison staff are younger than some inmates and little/no ‘life experience’ only compounds the issue.

How are you supposed to open up to someone who can’t relate to you?

Since prison disrupts and (in many cases) destroys family/social bonds, how can we as a society expect the carceral experience to reinforce desistance? McNeill and Velasquez (2017) argue that “those excluded from making the laws (and from the benefits and protections of laws) lose commitment to compliance with them”. I would agree with this statement, although I would offer that political disenfranchisement is one part of a bigger whole. Many prisoners and ex-offenders feel left out of society and not just the political arena. In fact, I asked several people in my wing about their opinions on politics and voting. All gave me similar cynical responses, which, I am sure, is only reinforced by our government subverting the very mechanism it wished to remain part of.

The ‘rejection of the rejecters’, as Scott and Flynn (2014) would say.

As McNeill and Weaver (2010) argue, those committed to desistance from crime can only do so much by themselves. Sooner or later, the social order has to step up to the plate and absorb people back into the fold of daily life through employment and other forms of social participation. When people show understanding and compassion for many of the psychically fractured and damaged individuals incarcerated in our prisons will society see results. Many prisoners I have came across on my travels have hearts; I always find that there is something human in the majority. Granted that there are dangerous individuals in our prisons and I will be the first to say that there is no rehabilitation for certain offences (the Bin Ladens and Fred Wests of the world).

A blanket ban should be applied in such cases.

Wouldn’t our prisons be better served if politicians in whose constituency specific prisons were located visited the institution on a quarterly basis, providing inmates with a voice and a platform to (a) raise issues and concerns, and (b) become more politically aware? Are we truly a progressive, democratic nation who wishes to include everyone or are we simply a cultural and social wolf in sheep’s clothing? A single vote on its own is next-to-worthless; it is in their collective pool that they become powerful. If Wales and the Republic of Ireland allow prisoners the right to vote (Evans, 2017), why can’t Scotland do the same?

I myself am only recently becoming politically aware and feel that one cannot challenge a subject on which one knows nothing about. The only way that people in prison can challenge these issues is if they become more politically aware. Perhaps I am the first brick in the wall of a (re)awakening of ‘civic sleepers?’ That would not be possible without the small (but growing) number of people who believe in my behavioural, mental and emotional metamorphosis. Such people should be held up as a collective microcosm of how a government ought to act. Yet Travis (2017) points out how the Westminster government, in response to the Hirst case, will permit ‘up to 100 inmates serving short sentences’ to vote while on temporary release. What sort of ‘consolation’ is that?

Absolutely no consolation.

Such vindictive practices despatch prisoners out into an unforgiving society where they are subjugated and herded into a hidden world that is criminogenic in its cause and solution. It is in this world of ‘Neo-Darwinism’ (Wacquant, 2008) where many of those masses shunned by mainstream society inhabit a criminal mirror image of the widely worshipped ruling function of the neoliberal universe (the free market). What a wonderful way to keep the criminal heart beating.

Crime that the government supposedly wishes to eradicate.


  • Clark, W.R., Golder, M. and Golder, S.N. (2013) Principles of Comparative Politics (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.
  • Evans, A. (2017) ‘Prisoner Voting in Scotland: a short summary’, SPICe Briefing Paper, The Scottish Parliament: Edinburgh.
  • Gilligan, J. (2000) ‘Punishment and violence: is the criminal law based on one huge mistake?’, Social Research, Volume 67(3): 745–112.
  • McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at
  • McNeill, F. and Schinkel, M. (2015) ‘Prisons and Desistance’ in Jewkes, Y., Bennett, J. and Crewe, B. (eds.) Handbook of Prisons, Portland, Oregon: Wilton.
  • McNeill, F. and Velasquez, J. (2017) ‘Prisoners, Disenfranchisement and Sleeping Citizenship’, see:
  • Scott, D. and Flynn, N. (2014) Prisons & Punishment: The Essentials (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.
  • Travis, A. (2017) ‘Up to 100 Prisoners on Short Sentences to be Given the Right to Vote’, The Guardian, 2nd  November 2017 [online]. Available at Accessed Wednesday 13th December 2017.
  • Wacquant, L. (2008) ‘Ordering Insecurity: Social Polarization and the Punitive Upsurge’, Radical Philosophy Review, Volume 11(1): 9–27.
  • Wacquant, L. (2010b) ‘Prisoner Re-entry as Myth and Ceremony’, Dialectical Anthropology, Volume 34: 605–620.The Colony of ‘Civic

One thought on “The Colony of ‘Civic Sleepers’”

  1. Another fantastic post, Kris. Well considered and clearly written, as ever . Has resonance with Freire’s work on education as liberation – Equipping the disenfranchised with skills to access institutions of power in order to challenge the very basis of that power. R C Arnett has an interesting article ‘Paolo Freire’s Revolutionary Pedagogy’ (qualitative inquiry 2002, pp489-510) in which he discusses civic engagement arising from literacy education and ‘communication ethics’ and ‘decolonising the mind’ which in turn can lead to a socio-political movement. You might find it interesting – I read it today in my work thinking about prison education and thought of you, then your blog post pops up on my twitter feed tonight! Serendipity!
    (Xmas card and letter are on their way to you – hope you get them in time!).
    Always look forward to your posts.
    Best wishes,


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