By Peter Shirlow
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Extra resources for Beyond the Wire: Former Prisoners and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland
Imprisonment, together with law, warfare and policing, is central to the state’s broader process of social ordering. It embeds hegemonic definitions of right and wrong and helps to reproduce existing social order and dominant forms of class and race relations (Rodriguez, 2006). Since this entire process is heavily politicised, for some critical criminologists, almost all of those imprisoned as a result of the criminal justice process may be regarded in some sense as political prisoners. Notwithstanding the political and ideological forces at work in the process of crime control, such a sweeping assessment is open to a number of obvious critiques.
The courts in such instances may also serve as further sites of practical and symbolic resistance. Some political prisoners may seek to use the opportunity to attempt to make a speech from the dock, to have ‘written into the record’ their motives and views on the system which tries them (Benson, 1981). For others, such as Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland during the 1970s who often used to refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the courts as tangible symbol of British rule in ‘Ireland’, their protest was primarily symbolic, a communicative action aimed primarily at the Republican constituency (McEvoy, 2001).
THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT FOR EARLY RELEASE The release of combatants from prison after a conflict has a long tradition. Processes of prisoner release or pardon are entirely in keeping with the common-law legal tradition which has permitted the sovereign exercise of power to mitigate punishment for individual offenders or classes of offenders since at least the seventh century (Bresler, 1965; Moore, 1989). Between 1310 and 1800 the British Parliament enacted 110 Acts of general pardon or amnesty for various classes of offenders (Kirchheimer, 1961).