The Prisoner Voting Debate

Zoe Bodinetz

The debate on prisoners’ right to vote is a longstanding issue with clear sides. The UK in particular has long been in conflict with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over its current blanket ban on prisoner votes. The UK’s view on disenfranchisement is undeniably outdated, being based on the Forfeiture Act of 1870, and remaining unchanged, whereas the majority of other European countries have removed or at least amended their voting bans.

The matter was first taken to Strasbourg in 2004 after John Hirst, an inmate convicted of manslaughter, appealed for the right to vote while in prison, claiming it an attack on human rights. As a result of his case, the court ruled that the UK blanket vote was ‘unlawful’, which resulted in pressure for the UK to change its laws. Yet in subsequent years, the UK has seen it’s government repeatedly refuse to take steps to amend its stance on such a pivotal issue in the prison system, with David Cameron pledging to block any attempts to give inmates the right to vote under his lead as prime minister. Britains persistent denial of Strasbourg’s ruling can perhaps be seen as reflective of a wider issue with Britain’s autonomy of law making. The UK’s view on disenfranchisement is undeniably outdated, being based on the Forfeiture Act of 1870, and remaining unchanged, where the majority of other European countries have removed or at least amended their voting bans.

If we are to view the prison system as not just a structure for punishment, but more critically as a system for rehabilitation of its inmates for successful transition back into society, it makes no sense to remove such an important social aspect from life in prison. Ideally, prison should be a place for personal transformation, learning and healing, processes which prisoners are perhaps incapable of, in their often highly dysfunctional lives. As Bob Cummines, (an armed robber who later went on to become the CEO of ‘Unlocked’, a reformed offenders association) points out,

‘It would make more sense to encourage them to engage with social issues through the ballot box rather than continue to reinforce their exclusion from society which often causes them to commit crime in the first place.’

Another way in which a voting blanket ban is detrimental to society, is in terms of the racial imbalance it causes. Ethnic minorities are over-represented in the prison population, and if the votes of these minorities are minimised more than the ethnic majority population, then the skewing of racial representation will only be augmented. It also seems cruel to remove the ability to vote from those experiencing the prison system firsthand, given that (albeit in a convoluted way), these votes have an effect on the way such systems are run.

Many who are opposed to prisoner votes suggest that the ban follows the same reasoning used to deny minors and those deemed ‘mentally incompetent’ the right to vote, in that they cannot be trusted to make informed and appropriate decisions when voting. The sentiment of likening prisoners to children or mentally incompetent individuals is sweeping and fundamentally insulting, and John Hirst is an elegant example of a prisoner who is clearly politically conscious and mentally capable.

Some European countries (such as France, Germany & the Netherlands) have devised a system whereby the severity of crime committed, determines whether the individual may have the right to vote. This is a logical approach given the breadth of crimes that can result in incarceration, and the fact that two very similar crimes may not both result in the offender receiving a custodial sentence. It essentially takes into account the question of whether a mass murdered have the same rights removed as someone jailed for theft?Yet, this approach still defines removing the right to vote as a ‘punishment’, the negative effects of this being discussed above.

Britain’s longstanding conflict with the European Court of Human Rights over the issue of the prisoner vote remains, but with plenty of other UK/Europe conflict, is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

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