Site Meter

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Prisoners deserve the vote

Prisoners deserve the vote

Why lifting Britain's blanket ban on inmates voting is a positive step forward

by Tom Belger

Saturday 13th November 2010, 23:34 GMT

Britain’s blanket ban on prisoners voting is soon to be lifted by the government, a whole five years after it was revealed that the ban contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. The Coalition may still uphold the ban for those who have committed the most serious offences. Its motives may be financial, aimed at reducing the costs of compensation to which prisoners are potentially entitled. But this should not detract from the fact that morally, this decision marks a significant step forward.

As the Prison Reform Trust points out, in a democratic society, ‘voting should not be seen as a privilege, but a positive civic duty’. All citizens who are affected by a society’s laws deserve the right to a say in choosing the government that determines those laws. People do not cease to be members of society merely because they are in prison. The vast majority will be returning to society once their sentence is served. The ban, a relic dating back to the 1870 Forfeiture Act, demonstrates a profound lack of respect for prisoners as fellow human beings. Prison is intended to deprive people of their liberty, not their humanity.

The three main functions of prison are punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation. A prison sentence is clearly sufficient punishment enough, without the superfluous demand of ‘civic death’. In reality, jail means prolonged separation from family, friends and the wider world; perpetual supervision; an utter lack of privacy; little freedom of association; reduced employment opportunities; restrictions on travel, and myriad other difficulties. In terms of deterrence, some believe criminals need to be shown that if they do not follow the rules, they will not be permitted a say in making them. This is somewhat undermined by the findings of the European Court of Human Rights, which make clear that there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest the threat of losing the right to vote helps to prevent crime.

On the contrary, there is actually a sound argument that allowing prisoners to vote could help to rehabilitate them. It will not miraculously transform them into perfect citizens, but it will at least enhance their self-perception as citizens, with a real stake in society. The sense of social exclusion felt by many prisoners and ex-prisoners is part of the reason why approximately 75 per cent re-offend within nine years, an astonishing figure that clearly highlights the failure of current attempts at rehabilitation. Any measure that can form part of a strategy to reduce re-offending rates and promote responsible, law-abiding citizenship is surely to be welcomed. After all, it is not as though granting prisoner the vote is either costly or dangerous; the onset of postal voting means expense and public safety are no longer the issues they may have been in 1870.

What’s more, it must not be forgotten that in practice, the ban means the welfare of 70,000 incarcerated British citizens often falls off the political radar. Politicians are far more likely to neglect inmates’ needs when they are safe in the knowledge that this will not cost them any votes at the ballot box. Allowing prisoners the vote means their concerns can be as adequately represented as those of the rest of society. They can be properly taken into account in the formulation of prison-related policy, rather than made subservient to the vindictive, hysterical demands of the tabloids.

The ban may appear ‘standard’ because of its longevity, but in reality it is anything but. In Europe at least, we lag behind our contemporaries: the standard procedure in most countries is for prisoners to vote, with exceptions for the most serious of crimes. Moreover, for those who truly value democracy, each citizen’s right to vote, instead of a passive acceptance of the status quo, should be the standard starting point from which all deviations must be well justified. Support for the ban should only come after recognizing that it is in itself a serious sanction. It also requires thinking long and hard about what it really is that we imagine it achieves. In truth, other than satisfying our vengeful impulses, the answer is ‘very little’. Celebration, rather than condemnation, is the appropriate response when the ban is lifted.

No comments: