Just before I went away, a number of my ISCRI colleagues met Mark Johnson (pictured) and Daniel Hutt to discuss potential joint research bids. Mark runs User Voice, an organisation which aims at reducing offender reoffending with the Saatchi & Saatchi slogan ‘only offenders can stop reoffending’.
Of the various projects discussed, one in particular struck me. They aim to improve the running of prisons through the formation of democratic structures within them, run by inmates. The model of democracy favoured is that of the council. Having already run significant pilot studies, they have substantial guidelines about how to educate both the electorate and those standing for election, with practical ideas that parties should represent views on particular areas of prison life, that those unsuccessful should still have a reserve role etc. Thus what the organisation brings to bear is expertise rather than just the idea of prison councils.
That said, the prime value of User Voice is that offenders themselves should play the most important role in any such initiative. And thus the guidelines offered by User Voice cannot be final: they cannot be structures imposed from without, from sideways on. It is up to the democratic process itself to determine its own form. This raises a nice question.
One of my colleagues asked, practically, what would be done to ensure that the democratic process would be inclusive: that those not directly involved would still informed, educated and kept in the loop? Mark Johnson’s reply was that versions of the process that were not inclusive would be voted out. Representatives who did not represent well would not succeed. In other words, his answer to a potential practical problem was that democracy itself would triumph without the active intervention of outside forces (his organisation, or mine, for example). But why think that?
I couldn’t help thinking that this is a reflection of Francis Fukuyama’s end of history thesis. Democracy would triumph over autocracy, for example, because of its own internal logic or value. The User Voice initiative may serve as a kind of empirical test of that idea.