Do individuals who have committed a crime lose their value as a human being? Does their voice cease to have meaning because they wandered into the 'nefarious zone'? Do their views become worthless? The answer to these questions is obvious prisoners are people, with important experiences to share.
Their stories, the very reason they have become criminals in the first place, are a result of the chains we have created as a society around them; for this reason, amongst various others, communities need to listen to prisoners. It is imperative that we safeguard their human rights and work to understand why these individuals committed crime. This is the only way of ensuring that they become rehabilitated once released which, in turn, benefits the community by reducing the chance that an individual might re-offend in the future.
Justice Action works hard to increase communication between prisoners and communities. It was with this objective in mind that our organisation created the magazine Framed in 1984. In June 2006, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) delivered a victory for us here at Justice Action and a step in the right direction for the recognition that prisoners are people with voices to be heard and rights to be protected. HREOC issued a report which found that the NSW Department of Corrective Services decision to not allow our magazine Framed to be put into prison libraries, or to be distributed to all federal inmates automatically, was in fact a violation of the human rights of federal prisoners in NSW. In Report 32, the HREOC President, John von Doussa QC, found the government's practices to be inconsistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This covenant states that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". NSW, sadly, was not the only state to have blanket-banned the distribution of Framed; WA was also guilty of stifling prisoners' freedom of expression.
Prior to 2002, Framed had been distributed freely in prisons around Australia for nearly 20 years without incident. The first issue banned by the NSW Department of Corrective Services was number 42; subsequent issues were refused distribution without explanation. This was despite the fact that all state departments were given the opportunity to review and respond to the contents of every article that was published, and to request corrections or exclusions. Having been refused entry into NSW and WA prisons, Framed distribution came to a standstill.
As a result of this draconian policy put in place by the NSW Department of Corrective Services, Justice Action decided to change the magazine format of Framed to a newspaper, to enable increased distribution and to follow the successful example of Inside Time, which is the UK newspaper for prisoners. Inside Time continues to be produced on a monthly basis in the UK by a non-profit publishing company. Over 35,000 copies are distributed free of charge throughout UK prisons. With a readership of approximately 50,000, Inside Time has helped to create links between prisoners and communities. It has given inmates a voice by providing a forum within which they can express themselves. No longer do they have to engage in socio-political riots, which itself is often viewed as a 'criminalised' act, to have their voices heard.
The time for prisoner dialogue is ripe. That is why Framed, the original medium for prisoners to express themselves, has taken a new form. It is within the manifestation of Just Us that the HREOC's findings will finally be vindicated. This newspaper will continue, and indeed strengthen, the manner and method in which Australian prisoners' voices are heard. We will keep publishing articles to ensure prisoners stay informed about their rights; we will continue to provide an independent space for all ideas to be heard. Justice Action encourages all prisoners to submit articles, letters or poems in any language or format.
For those of you who are fortunate enough to be reading Just Us from outside the prison walls, we encourage you to reach deep into your hearts (and your pockets) and support our objective: to give those individuals, many of whom have never had the chance, the opportunity to express themselves. Contributions keep not only Just Us alive, but the inmates as well; by giving someone a voice you are empowering them, thus encouraging them to explore avenues apart from re-offending once released from gaol. Just Us is also read by many forward-thinking academics, lawyers and politicians because it offers a refreshing, unbiased and most of all, real analysis of the issues that matter the most to the inmates themselves. There would be an inherent problem if the only forum on prisoner issues that existed came from the same ivy towers and Canberra offices that silently stood back and watched the Department of Corrective Services ban Justice Action's original prison magazine, Framed. Community support is imperative in ensuring that the information is disseminated where it is really needed the most.
From Progression to Regression - A Look at Voting Rights for Prisoners
Just Us is in fact one of the last remaining independent channels for prisoners to express themselves. This is particularly important in light of recent legislative developments that have taken away prisoners' political voices completely, in contrast to most of the democratic world. Australian legislation has recently been amended to stop prisoners who are serving a sentence of full-time detention from voting. Prisoners have lost the vote, and as a result, one of the last means they have of expressing themselves.
The Australian history of prisoner voting rights is a story of progress followed by rapid regression. In 1902, legislation explicitly stated that there would be no voting rights for prisoners convicted of an offence for which the maximum sentence was one year's imprisonment or more. This included prisoners who were only sentenced to six months' jail when the maximum penalty was one year. By 1938, this had changed. Prisoners were still deprived of voting if the maximum sentence for their offence was five years, even if they were only sentenced to three years' imprisonment.
In 1995, the Commonwealth Electoral Act was changed to give the right to vote based on the time prisoners actually served (their non-parole period), and not on the maximum sentence for their offence. This gave thousands of additional inmates the right to vote. It was the responsibility of the Controller General of Prisons to send a list of prisoners who were subsequently enfranchised to the Australian Electoral Commission. As a result, they were obliged to make arrangements for portable voting booths to be placed in prisons across the country. It was estimated that an extra 15,000 prisoners were entitled to fully participate in the electoral process. This small gain for prisoner rights, however, was extremely short lived. In 2004, legislation was amended so that only those imprisoned for less than three years had a right to vote. Although a major step backwards, this was nothing compared to what was to come next; in June 2006, legislative changes officially banned all prisoners across the country serving a full-time detention sentence from voting.
So why has our modern Liberal government of the 21st century taken such a backward stance on voting rights and made legislation even more restrictive for inmates than it was in 1902? The minister responsible for reducing prisoner-voting rights, Special Minister of State Senator Eric Abetz, believes that inmates are simply not suitable for voting. On AM he claimed "if you're not fit to walk the streets as deemed by the judicial system in this country, then chances are you're not a fit and proper person to cast a vote in relation to the future of your country". Another underlying factor for this new legislation is that prisoners are more likely to vote Labor than Liberal which means if the Howard government can stop all prisoners from casting ballots, votes from these marginalised members of society cannot be lost to the opposition.
Banning prisoners from voting is intended to encourage the idea of civil responsibility and to create respect for the rule of law. Justice Action supports the notion that prisoners are individuals who have much to gain from the promotion of civil responsibility and respect for the legal system. With that said, a set of bars separating 'us' from 'them' does not indicate that inmates' voices should be ignored. Suffrage ensures that prisoners are listened to and their needs addressed; access to information is an imperative step in achieving this objective. As a community, it is up to us to listen to inmates or we will never be able to understand why crimes are committed and effectively examine how to prevent offences from occurring in
It is particularly surprising that Australian prisoners lost their voting rights in 2006, given the fact that in 2005 the European Court of Human Rights actually ruled that the UK voting ban on convicted prisoners was a breach of their human rights (The Guardian, 6 February 2006). Suffrage is a basic human right. A citizen is a person who is legally recognised and accepted as part of society, and is thus allowed to vote. We have to treat prisoners with the same respect. Justice Kirby argued:
"Prisoners are human beings. In most cases, they are also citizens of this country,
'subject to the Queen' and 'electors' under the Constitution. They should, so far as the
law can allow, ordinarily have the same rights as all other persons before this Court.
They have lost their liberty whilst they are in prison. However, so far as I am
concerned, they have not lost their human dignity or their right to equality before the
law." Muir v the Queen  HCA 21
Clearly Australia has taken a step back to less-than-halcyon days where prisoner rights were non-existent, moving against the position taken by the rest of the Westernised world. Canadian prisoners won the right to vote in 2002, whilst 18 European countries also allow prisoner voting. It is time we followed suit.
Denying prisoners the right to vote is considered by many to be a legitimate form of punishment. Some may question why people who have committed crimes against society should be allowed to make decisions that impact upon how society functions. The answer is simple: prisoners are already punished with imprisonment. The actual result is to administer a "double punishment", thus taking away their freedom and their status as citizens. Prisons are a place that individuals go to be rehabilitated the government should not have licence to impose additional punishment on them at will (New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, www.nswccl.org.au). Our current legislation is placing additional sanctions on individuals who are not equipped with the tools to fight back. Just Us is one forum in which inmates have a real opportunity to counter the government's attempt at stifling prisoner opinion.
Without the vote, politicians no longer have to listen or talk to prisoners. This is particularly worrying. How can prison conditions be improved and violations of human rights be prevented when the government can ignore inmates' opinions and not be accountable to anyone for miscarriages of justice? Drastic improvements need to be made to our correctional system immediately. Howard has made it clear that this is not going to happen from the top down, so it is up to us to begin at the grassroots level communication is the crucial first step in achieving this objective.
Recent cases indicate that unless proper procedures are implemented and followed, shocking abuses of power will continue within the justice system. As it stands, prisoners need a forum to address their concerns. For example, in March 2006 the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the rights of Corey Brough had been violated. The CCPR communication 1184/2003 details how Brough was transferred from a juvenile justice facility to an adult jail in NSW, despite being only 16 years of age. He was stripped, kept under constant lighting, medicated and left without a mechanism through which he could voice his complaints. The UN has condemned the actions of the government towards Brough but authorities still refuse to acknowledge these findings. In another case, Craig Anthony Behr, 24, was kicked to death in 2004 within an hour of being put in a cell with a psychotic prisoner. It was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that his cellmate had expressed "homicidal urges two days earlier, and begged prison officers not to put Mr. Behr in his cell". Again, complaints fell upon deaf ears.
We ultimately need to ask: what is the purpose of incarceration? Is the prison solution merely a container of social problems or intended for rehabilitation? The Guiding Principles for the Management of Prisoners, which are intended to aid prison managers state-wide in the rehabilitation of inmates, state that prisoners should be "supervised and managed with an emphasis on their continuing part in the community, not their exclusion from it" (Standard Guidelines for Corrections in Australia, Revised 2004). Denying inmates the vote directly contradicts this guideline, as does banning Just Us. The right to vote maintains a formal channel for communication with politicians. Inclusion in the voting process would encourage prisoners to keep an active interest in society and act as a catalyst to promote exercising civil responsibility from inside Australian gaols.
'Prisoner' and 'criminal' are labels the legal system place on people to categorise their actions actions that are shaped and perpetuated by the current hierarchies that society has created. The labels that differentiate 'them' from 'us' should not be used to deny the fact that these marginalised individuals have thoughts that need to be heard. Just Us is arguably the only arena left in which inmates can express themselves. It is Justice Action's primary concern that prisoners are treated as human beings. Our organisation is currently gathering material to confront the Australian government and address these constitutional issues over the upcoming months. We will demand that the government openly addresses the crucial question concerning the true status of inmates according to the law of prisoners. Send in your submissions and assist us in adding fuel to the fire your opinions are the ones that count!