Aren’t Can’t Don’t: As a formerly incarcerated person, I know that denying the right to vote violates respect for human dignity, sending the message that absolute rehabilitation is impossible, writes Awatea Mita.
It’s 11.00pm and I am returning to Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility as a “release to work” prisoner. I’ve earned a position of trust and been assigned to employment five days a week outside of the prison, for which I’m extremely thankful. It was one of my goals and I worked hard to get there. There’s a van load of us, mostly dressed in prison-issue green track pants, green t-shirts and hi-viz vests. I’m more self-conscious of my boobs jiggling around all the time because I don’t have a well-fitting bra. My brother did his best with the undergarments he sent in for me, but I’ve gained weight from a lack of exercise and a bad diet. I felt too guilt-ridden to ask him to buy me more, he had already done so much for me.
We have finished the evening shift. Along with the usual employees, we were loading up pallets with Christmas goods to be dispatched to stores around the country. On the short ride back to the prison I think about one of those pallets destined for my hometown. I know I won’t be home for Christmas. I can’t help but wonder, maybe one of those items I stacked onto that pallet will end up in the hands of my family. The image in my mind makes me smile.
The prison gates have shut behind us and the large roller door has descended, ensuring we are enclosed in the prison vehicle bay. I close off the fantasy of having a hand in my family enjoying a happy Christmas too. Master control opens the door for us to enter a waiting area. We start to take off our shoes and socks. The guards aren’t ready yet so we sit on the floor talking about our shift. Ten minutes later they arrive, although sometimes we wait up to half an hour, and on occasion longer than that. I offer to go first. I walk in to a small room, into the screened area and remove all my clothes. I think back to when I was younger and there was no running water in my father’s house. We would wash in the nearby river. I didn’t think about being naked. I would just think about the practicalities of washing my body to be clean and fresh. In winter, the water was so cold I would jump in, then get out, soap up quickly, jump back in again to rinse off. I would have goosebumps all the way back to the house.
Officer Malia asks me to assume different positions for bodily inspection. I raise my arms. I lift up my boobs. I open my mouth and poke out my tongue. I turn around and lean forward, straight-backed with my hands on my knees. She asks me to squat and lift my butt up in the air. I stand back up at her request and face her again. Tonight she asks me to shake out my hair. I pull out my hair tie and roughly run my fingers through my hair, shaking my head. I’m trying to distract myself with practicalities and I wonder if she can see the goosebumps I have now. Meanwhile, Officer Amahle has been examining my clothing. She is wearing gloves investigating the seams of my underwear. With her gloved fingers she traces the edging of my bra where the underwire has long since broken through the stitching and been discarded. She is doing a thorough job. I recall my mother being strip searched by the police who were doing “a thorough job”. She spoke of the humiliation. Once all the women are strip searched, it’s midnight and we are escorted back to our unit. It’s too late and I’m too tired to eat so I head straight to bed. I drift off to sleep, reminding myself to be grateful that I am able to work.
The daily indignities explicit in prison life are easier to communicate than the covert ways in which incarcerated people are dehumanised.
Suffrage, at its most basic understanding is the right to vote. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms “universal and equal suffrage” as a fundamental human right. It is also a right of citizenship. This year marks 125 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. New Zealand takes pride of place for the well-known fact of being the first country in the world to give women the vote. This has been the cause of celebration for women’s human rights and gender equality. My own mother was honoured in an illustrated history of New Zealand’s extraordinary women. And yet, not all New Zealand women have the right to vote today. Incarcerated persons are stripped of this right as surely as they are stripped of their dignity every day.
I am not alone in sharing first-hand experience of the inhumane processes that reduce a person to an abstraction labelled a prisoner. The feeling of being less than human because of the denial of my right to vote was as palpable as strip searches were constant. In spite of the attorney general appealing the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, an incarcerated person, Arthur Taylor, fought and won a case against the government to recognise that denying the right to vote is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights. The ruling acknowledges that incarcerated people do have human rights. According to Andrew Little, however, there is a lack of political will to prioritise the reform needed to address this violation. The human right of voting remains stripped away.
Disenfranchisement, or depriving citizens of their right to vote, is a policy that causes harm by further isolating people who are trying to reintegrate into society, and to build relationships back to their whānau and hapū. My crimes are something I did, but that’s not who I am as a person. We all know now that many people entering the prison system needed access to services and support that could have provided a prosocial pathway for them. For example, once in prison, this may be the first place they are being connected to assistance with literacy, sexual violation and addictions. Most incarcerated persons want to right their wrongs and make amends by living good lives for their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their whānau. Part of having remorse for causing harm is assuring those who experienced the harm that the behaviour will not occur again.
Collateral consequences of incarceration, such as barriers to employment, access to safe housing and stigmatisation are all at odds with the positive goal setting by incarcerated persons wanting to reintegrate. Rehabilitation as a safe, responsible, and productive member of an egalitarian society must include the most basic right of the democratic process — the right to participate in choosing who governs, the right to vote. There is research that shows an association between civic engagement, such as being able to vote, and the reduction of offending.
We have a missed opportunity here. We could be teaching our whānau who are in prisons about the history and Māori experience of voting in Aotearoa, and especially our Māori women who are mothers that will return to their families. To reintegrate into community understanding the importance of voting could be a means for the intergenerational transmission of a voting culture within whānau that is fully participatory in the political futures of our nation.
Denying an incarcerated person their right to vote is a punishment that does not fit the crime. I understand the notion of removing someone’s liberty through incarceration, restricting freedom and using confinement as a punishment to protect public safety. However, in accepting this argument, removing the right to vote from incarcerated persons has nothing to do with protecting public safety. In a democracy all people should have a voice, a right to speak to the collective good of society; a society that could greatly benefit by listening to those most affected by the social determinants of crime and those who have lived experience of how the criminal justice system operates.
To reclaim our dignity, our human dignity, is to not be humiliated, dehumanised, or marginalised. Not being able to vote violates respect for human dignity. The message this sends is that absolute rehabilitation is impossible and collateral consequences are not only acceptable, but inevitable. It is humiliating to the core to be deemed unworthy of basic human rights. Incarcerated persons were subject to obey laws in which they are stripped of having any say, stripped of their voices, and stripped of their right to vote for who they feel would best represent them. This is to exist as a marginalised person. I am less than human. I have no rights. My dignity is worthless. Voiceless. Rightless. Voteless.
As a Māori woman I know this feeling all too well. When we know the disproportionate statistics of Māori incarceration by the criminal justice system, we know that Māori are more affected than non-Māori by incarcerated persons not having a right to vote. This broadens the injustice and directly relates to the colonial agenda of denying indigenous people political power. Having a right to vote means Māori can reverse these statistics. If more Māori were on the Māori electoral roll we could have more seats in parliament, which could lead to greater representation on the most pressing issues that concern Māori people. Our tipuna fought and paid for the rights of citizenship to build better futures for our mokopuna. Voting is a way to honour their struggle, a struggle that continues today. We have a history and a present of fighting for inclusion.
As a formerly incarcerated person, I advocate for the rights of incarcerated people to create pathways for change because of the benefits for society, for whānau and hapū, for all of Aotearoa. It goes even further than that because I am also mindful of other minority and indigenous communities that endure under the spectre of colonisation and/or the disproportionate negative outcomes from bias in a criminal justice system. The example of Arthur Taylor, as an incarcerated person, advocating for the right to vote for incarcerated people and winning, exemplifies the importance of advocacy from people who have lived experience.
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