I spent Monday with Terry Waite. People may remember him as the envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury who was involved in negotiating the release of prisoners and hostages through the 1970s and 1980s until captured himself and held for five years in Lebanon.

We made some visits to government to discuss justice-related issues around prisons and incarceration. You can imagine Terry has a few ideas on this stuff.

While being held in Lebanon, Terry had been shackled to a wall, feet and hands, for more than 23 hours a day for five years, and prevented from having reading material for the first three and a half years until a friendly guard broke the rules.

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He was tortured and set up with a mock execution and only allowed pencil and paper twice in the five years. Once was to write what he thought was to be his last communication with his family before his expected death.

During our day we discussed prison conditions and such things as rights to visit with family and the right to education and appeals to sentences — also, the right to representation and the worth of building the proposed new 3000-bed prison in Waikato.
It is timely to think on these things when the Supreme Court in New Zealand is deliberating the right of prisoners to vote in elections. This issue was close to my heart as the member's bill enacting the change in the law that removed the right to vote in central and local government elections for those serving less than three years came out of the National Party caucus in 2010.

The law previously was that a prisoner could not vote in an election unless they would be released within the term of the incoming government. So those sentenced to less than three years could vote and those whose sentence would finish in the next three years could vote.

It was a right that the vast majority didn't exercise, but such is their prerogative given that we live in a free country — even the prisoners of the crown.

My hotly contested argument was — and remains — that the best way to rehabilitate prisoners to live a crime-free life on their release is to focus their minds on life outside jail.

Get them taking responsibility for that lifestyle and to run their lives the best that they can within the law.

One way of obtaining that focus is allowing them to vote. This idea was pooh-poohed by some in the caucus with more currency than I, and the decision was taken that the party would support the sponsor of the members bill, Paul Quinn.

It was far more about appealing to conservative and tough-on-crime voters and commentators than it was about anything else. As I have said, it ran completely counter to any thoughtful commentary on prisoners' rights and the obligations of the state towards rehabilitation, and served no purpose other than to smack people who were already smacked down.

The irony is not lost on me that the prisoner lawyer running the appeal is Arthur William Taylor, our most notorious prisoner who was loose in the Hutt Valley when I was a trainee detective, and the offending that sees him in jail today started in Stratford just a few kilometres from my home.

He, through his violence and offending, did all he could to remove the rights of others wherever he could. But that is a totally different argument.

The behaviour of a single person does not affect their human rights or we would have a graduated allocation of rights dependent on our number of detentions at school, visits to the boss's office at work, the number of speeding tickets obtained and demerit points incurred.

It also goes to show that prisoners in New Zealand have huge liberties in comparison to other countries, such as the one Terry Waite was locked up in, yet this is not an endorsement of a bill preventing participation in the most basic of rights in a democracy — the right to vote.

I, for one, hope the justices of the Supreme Court see it my way ... even if the National Party didn't.