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Monday, November 08, 2010

Voting is a duty not a privilege

Voting is a duty not a privilege

By Lesley Hart

Published: 06/11/2010

GRANTING prisoners the right to vote is never going to be much of a vote winner. The public doesn’t want it; most prisoners won’t use it. So it is hardly surprising politicians are so reluctant to endorse it.

After six years of legal wrangling, the UK government has accepted a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights to lift its ban on prisoner voting, or risk costly litigation and compensation. After a slasher-flick attack on public spending, locking horns with the ECHR at the expense of the taxpayer is not going to win votes either.

And so it was, with the reluctance of a handcuffed diver belly-flopping at gunpoint into a pool of sewage, that David Cameron announced the move this week. Politicians of all stripes recoiled from the stench, with the SNP and Scottish Labour squirming at the prospect of our own prison system playing guinea pig in May. This ruling could prove less popular than Trident, than the Iraq war, than Scottish Conservatives even. It would have little to no economic gain (in the short term). So what is the point of it?

Why should prisoners be allowed to vote? Why should anyone? People may disagree as to what qualifies a human being to vote – and what disqualifies them. However, in debating prisoner voting rights, we have to consider how their reinstatement in the UK, for the first time in 140 years, might benefit society, prison life, and inmates. You might ask: why benefit prisoners? Aren’t we supposed to be punishing them? Well of course they are being punished. They are being denied their liberty. That is the deal. There are no grounds, however, for denying them their humanity. Regardless of how much they deserve to be punished, we owe it to society never to stoop to that. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, definitely should be part of the deal.

If our penal system does not value the rehabilitation of inmates to enable them to reintegrate into society, it does not serve its purpose. The fact that most prisoners will one day be released, and that it is preferable for them not to reoffend, necessitates an emphasis on rehabilitation. This is not the soft-touch option. Instilling in prisoners a sense of social responsibility and what it means to be an upstanding member of society is not pampering them. Voting is not a privilege; it is a duty.

Wherever you stand on voter rights for prisoners, I think we all agree prisons should not be doss houses for criminals. They should demand a lot more of them than simply passing time. Some law-abiding citizens may wish to see a return to Victorian hard labour and casual torture in prisons. People who break the law give up their civic rights, some would argue – perhaps some of their human rights too. Others see value in educating prisoners about the importance of social responsibility and democracy – the cornerstones of civilised society – but would only grant the right to vote on their release.

In my view, the best way to instil values is to put them into practice, and so I would be in favour – not necessarily of granting universal suffrage to prisoners, but of lifting the blanket ban, as ruled by the ECHR. Besides fostering social awareness, both inside and out of prison, a politically-engaged penal population is one that is better equipped for civilised discourse with its authorities over any internal issues or disputes.

Convicted killer John Hirst, of Hull, who brought a case to the ECHR in 2005 which led to its ruling that the “blanket ban” was discriminatory, said in an interview this week: “All prisoners can do is riot, if they’ve got a complaint, so you’ve got to give them this legitimate channel.”

A problem with that is prisoners don’t tend to be politically engaged, or much concerned with the plight of society. Many have poor literacy skills. They often have serious addictions, mental illnesses and long histories of antisocial behaviour. Some simply couldn’t care less about anyone but themselves – which makes them oddly not dissimilar to the Tories.

Ironically, if they weren’t so vehemently against the ruling, the Conservatives might enjoy a popular vote among prisoners (although maybe not in Scotland). Prisoners are commonly self-preserving, homophobic, chauvinistic, anti-equality and in favour of free enterprise, low taxation, and social hierarchies. Some even support harsher sentencing and capital punishment – for criminals worse than themselves, obviously. The uncultivated and semi-literate convict is more likely to lean to the right than the left, because leaning right allows them to suit themselves.

Regardless of how prisoners may vote, they could not wield the electoral clout to pose any real threat to constituencies. There is no danger that prison voters could secure a seat for the BNP, for example, or any other party. Even if every eligible prisoner turned out and voted the same way in areas with the biggest prisons, the impact would scarcely be felt. And the likelihood of even half those prisoners actually turning out to vote is practically zilch – for the moment.

However, the point of granting voter rights to prisoners is not to significantly alter the electoral demographics of Britain, but to invest in prisoner reform for the greater good of society. Politicians may recoil from it (as a vote-loser), but Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, reported this week that many prison governors believe voting is a vital part of resettlement – a belief shared by Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform who said the right to vote instilled individuals with a sense of the responsibilities of citizenship ahead of a safe reintegration into the community.

The ban on voting rights for prisoners has been lifted. Politicians may not like it, but lump it they must, and vote to decide on what those rights entail.


Anonymous said...

voting should be a civil right - not a human right. All criminals and murders should not be included. They did not consider their victims human rights when they committed a crime - why should these dregs of society feel that they have voting priviledges? 85% of the country polled says "no" to prisoners getting the vote and the remaining scum and lawbreakers say "yes" - we can't all be wrong.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous. You are missing the point. You say over 85 percent of the British public poll said 'no' to prisoners votes. That may well be right, but over 85 percent of the public voted for the ban of the TV licence and we still have to fu*king pay it! The courts decided on the vote whether the British public are right or not!