Prisoners’ rights research encouraging civic engagement among students

A lecturer in the School of Law is encouraging students to challenge the current socio-political landscape of penal reform, by drawing on his experience researching the rights of prisoners in the Republic of Ireland.

A prisoner in handcuffs.

Dr Cormac Behan, a Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Law, spent three years researching the enfranchisement of Irish prisoners, following legislation in 2006 which allowed them the vote.

With a view to finding out what the voting experience was like, Cormac interviewed 50 prisoners following a large scale survey of approximately 200 inmates from three different prisons.

Mixed method approach

The mixed method approach provided Cormac, who had previously worked as a teacher in Irish prisons for 14 years, with an in-depth understanding of why prisoners either did or did not vote in the Irish general election in 2007; who they voted for and what their political concerns were.

I remind students that they have an obligation also, in their learning, to bring that in to the world that they’re going into.

Dr Cormac Behan

Lecturer in Criminology, School of Law

This understanding enabled him to better identify the parallels to wider society. One of his key findings was that those of the same demographic, regardless of being in or out of prison, voted in the same way.

He says: “I think it probably reflected how our society tends to exclude prisoners and treat them as, perhaps, a sub-section of society. In reality, their concerns, their interests, their activities reflected the rest of society as well.”

Though almost 10 years old, Cormac’s research maintains significant relevance in a number of contexts and he continues to use it both in and out of the lecture hall.

In January this year, he presented the research as evidence to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of Scottish Parliament in favour of them lifting the blanket ban that currently exists on Scottish prisoners voting.

The Committee heard evidence from a number of those who were pro-enfranchisement and have subsequently legislated to remove the blanket ban in its entirety.

The Committee report, released in May this year, cited the success of the Republic of Ireland as a motivator for legislature change; as well as making mention of Cormac’s research and recognising that prisoners are still citizens so should, therefore, partially retain their rights.

“They were particularly keen to examine what was the experience of a country like the Republic of Ireland, a smaller jurisdiction with, I suppose, similar attributes to Scotland – one of its nearest neighbours – and how the enfranchisement played out there,” Cormac says.

Engaging with research

His students, some of whom he hopes will go on to be judges, are the ones that he really wants to engage with this research though.

He believes it’s important for those entering these kind of careers to be informed about the way the power they will have could affect lives.

He explains: “I do think we are in a very, very unique position that we can encourage students to reflect on some very, very significant elements of public policy and society, in this instance it happens to be the use of imprisonment.

“I remind students that they have an obligation also, in their learning, to bring that in to the world that they’re going in to.

"For example, if they’re sending somebody to prison that is a very significant power that they have and hopefully they’re doing that in an informed way.”

PhD student, Abi Stark, is working towards a career in academia and has taught alongside Cormac for the past four years.

She was introduced to his research while studying for her masters in International Criminology and says this was what garnered her interest in prisoners’ rights and citizenship, something she hopes to take into the lecture hall in the future.

“I think one of the things I’ve learnt from having research-led teaching during my undergraduate and masters, is that I love being able to share that in a teaching capacity and I’d really like to have the opportunity in the future to develop my own modules and teaching material based on the work that I’ve done,” she says.

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