11/08/2017 08:36 BST | Updated 11/08/2017 08:36 BST

Kenyan Elections Provide Unlikely Source of Hope For Prison Reform

Just hearing the word 'election' again might be enough to make you shudder, especially if you're a UK voter. Or US citizen. But this week Kenya faces a close-run Presidential Election which could have a broader impact on us all.

Kenya has the second largest economy in East Africa, with significant foreign investment. It also provides key transport routes for the fragile economies of surrounding countries.

And the threat of disruption is very real.

Three of the previous four elections were marred by violence, including the 2008 election when 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 displaced. The suspicious death of a senior Electoral Official has only added to the uncertainty.

However in the midst of challenging circumstances, Kenya is taking the unlikely step of allowing its prisoners to vote for the first time. That's potentially 50,000 individuals who are now eligible to vote in over 18 prisons.

The Voting Rights of Prisoners

The issue of prisoner's rights to vote is a deeply controversial one. In the UK, convicted prisoners experience what has been called a 'civil death'. This means losing a wide range of legal and civil rights taken for granted by the rest of the adult population.

Most of us are in support of this. The argument being, 'If you are willing to break the law, you can't claim the right to make the law for everyone else'. However few of us would feel that our vote has so significant an impact.

John Hirst, imprisoned for a 25 year life-sentence first took the issue to the European Court in 2004. His reason for doing so was to bring about a wider change to prisons conditions, without having to start a riot.

"Basically I'd read books that said if you want to change something you start up a pressure group, and then you put pressure on MPs and then you get things changed in Parliament," he said. "Well that's all right if you've got the vote ...."

In its ruling the Court stated that a blanket voting ban on British prisoners is contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. It went on to state that "[The] removal of the vote... runs counter to the rehabilitation of the offender".

What Purpose Should Prison Serve?

Nelson Mandela once said, "no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones". Treatment which he understood from both sides of the prison walls.

Generally prison serves as a punishment, an intentional withdrawal of rights and a restriction of freedoms. There is an assumption that a term in prison is able to provide retribution and recompense for whatever terrible act has been committed. Rehabilitation is secondary. It's believed that for most prisoners, it will have sufficiently 'taught them a lesson' that they will leave a reformed character. Statistics would suggest otherwise. Former British home secretary Douglas Hurd once described prisons as simply, "an expensive way of making bad people worse."

Prison Can Be A Place of Positive Change

The African Prison Project takes another view. Whilst many prison systems across the world are in crisis, we exist to transform imprisonment and to empower people in prison to drive positive change.

We are awaiting the graduation of over 60 students - African prisoners and prison staff - who have been studying law via the University of London's distance learning programme. Many of those who have previously graduated with us have gone on to provide significant legal advice for those around them, changing the justice system from the inside out.

The crisis of our prison systems may not be solved by granting prisoners the right to vote. That comes with its own risks and challenges. However perhaps it's those behind bars who have the insight and innovation that we need the most. Whilst they may appear to have the least to contribute, they offer us a unique perspective.

Who Is Missing Out The Most?

In its 2005 ruling, the ECHR determined there was "no evidence that disenfranchisement helped to prevent crime". Whatever the challenges for Kenya, many prisoners are taking their opportunity to vote very seriously. Prisoners at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, where APP works, just outside Nairobi, were keen to register as soon as the chance arose. Perhaps it's the knowledge that many of them, whether guilty or not, will find themselves or their family caught in the justice system sooner or later.

There are of course many reasons for not committing a crime but the risk of losing your voting rights must be fairly low on the list. The loss of independence, dignity and hope is a far more painful burden. However when someone who is put behind bars is denied access to justice and any hope for their future, their loss to the rest of us is perhaps a far greater risk that society can afford to bear.