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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Should prisoners be allowed to vote?

Should prisoners be allowed to vote?
Should prisoners be allowed to vote? Jonathan Aitken and Frances Crook takes sides in the debate. Emine Saner hosts

Interview by Emine Saner
The Guardian, Saturday 23 April 2011

Jonathan Aitken and Frances Crook debate giving the vote to prisoners. Photograph: Felix Clay

This month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK must end its ban on votes for prisoners after the government lost its final appeal. The prime minister says the thought makes him feel "physically sick", while reformers say it is a step in the right direction. Emine Saner brought together Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, and Jonathan Aitken, former Conservative MP and former prisoner, who now campaigns on prison and rehabilitation issues, to take sides.

Frances Crook: I'm surprised we're not on the same side. I would have thought, with your experience, that social responsibility is something you would want to encourage among prisoners.

Jonathan Aitken: It's my experience which makes me against it. Of all the issues prisoners care about, this is about as low as it comes. If you want to do something for prisoners' rights, as we do, there are higher priorities. I think society has the right to say that when you commit a crime serious enough to be sent to prison, you lose your freedom, and with that you lose some of your privileges, of which voting is one.

FC: Voting is not a privilege, it is a right, and actually I think it's a responsibility. I would agree prisoners wouldn't put it at the top of the list of things they want. But voting wouldn't be top of the list if you stopped 100 people in the street and said "What makes a difference to you?" It's still an important civic responsibility. In some ways, voting is even more important if you've lost your freedom, because we want to reintegrate people, we want them to see themselves as citizens, even if they're in prison.

JA: Historically, it has always been part of the punishment that you lose the right to vote. Good old parliamentary common sense has said no to changing that. I think parliament has spoken for the people, and for most prisoners, too.

FC: The parliamentary vote conflated different bêtes noires – prisoners and Europe. Voting against both at the same time was too tempting. We should be talking about what prison is for, what we do with long-term prisoners, and issues about self-injury, inactivity, violence, expense. If you give prisoners the vote, those issues would become more politically sensitive. It's not just about voting every five years – I would like to see prisoners voting in local elections as well. If we encourage the relationship between prisoners and local government, they can pay more attention to resettlement and employment.

JA: As we move from the philosophical to the practical, we get into democratic muddles. Suddenly, quite artificially, people who don't belong to the local community, and may be hundreds of miles from any community they came from, will have the power to change an election result. This afternoon I was at High Down prison in Surrey, which potentially has 1,400 votes; say a third of prisoners decided they would vote in a local election, they could swing it on issues that are nothing to do with the concerns of local residents.

FC: When it comes to the practicality, there are real issues which have not been discussed, because the issue got so hijacked. You are right that 1,400 prisoners all voting in one constituency would swing it, so somehow you have to find a home area. The problem is, what is your home when you're a prisoner?

JA: I'm glad you're conceding the practical ground. These European judges have no sense of the practicalities when concentrating on the high principle. I'm against it on principle as well, but the practicalities seem to be overwhelming. If you say in Brixton prison they're all going to have the right to vote, the average stay there is 35 days. The poor old overworked prison service have to turn themselves into returning officers.

FC: Remand prisoners have always had the right to vote, and other countries which have similarly large and transient prison populations, like Germany, still manage to give the vote to some of those prisons, so it is possible.

Emine Saner: The ECHR only ruled that the blanket ban ends. Would you like to see all prisoners given the right to vote?

FC: Yes. How would you differentiate? You've committed rape, you can't; armed robbery, you can. It would be invidious. Most jurisdictions that give prisoners the vote, give it to all. It's administratively easier, and a matter of principle.

JA: You can get into hopeless muddles when you start to give some prisoners votes and not others. One conceivable way is to leave it to the judge.

FC: The government tried to undermine the principle of voting by saying only short-sentence prisoners will be able to vote. If they restrict it to people serving under four years, they're effectively saying prisoners can't vote, and it's a sleight of hand, which is dishonest.

JA: I think it takes quite a lot to stir up the British people, but they are over this. On the ground level, I can only be amused by prisoners' attitudes. When I was in prison, an awful lot of them thought Margaret Thatcher was still in power. The idea that there will be some huge surge of useful votes for the left, which I think some reformers think …

FC: [laughs] Oh no. Giving prisoners the vote would do more to support the Conservatives than anything I can think of. I have never met a left-wing prisoner!

JA: It's very generous of the Conservatives to be against it.

ES: A recent YouGov poll said 67% of British people were against giving prisoners the vote. Why is there such a strong reaction?

JA: I don't feel it's anti-prisoner. I think people are much more against the idea of the European court imposing something un-British on the British people.

FC: When you ask, "Do you think prisoners should get the vote?" there is a sense that prisoners are not us, they're dangerous and we don't want to give them anything. When you talk to the public in more depth and say, "Do you think prisoners ought to be encouraged to be responsible citizens, live a good and useful life afterwards?", everyone says yes. Citizenship is part of that.

JA: The discussion on rehabilitation is taking a more humane tone, but giving prisoners a new right they haven't had, I think people won't go that extra mile. It would take oceans of evidence to be convinced that voting would encourage a change of character or behaviour.

FC: People have to see themselves engaged with the society they are part of. Being part of the decision-making process is part of being a responsible citizen. Giving the vote is one small step in being engaged with civic power.

JA: One of the terms for criminal is an outlaw, someone who puts themselves outside the law. You might say people who commit crimes serious enough to go to prison put themselves outside the law-making process. The small-c conservative in me says don't change it.

FC: And the big-r for radical in me says change it.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but I find your views on the rights of prisoners, and in relation to this on the rights of intruders into other peoples homes, as sickening. As far as I am concerned, Cameron is spot on when he says that burglars leave their human rights outside. I have recently been burgled, and have now lost the one place in the world where I felt entirely secure. I can no longer sleep soundly in my own home, with the assurance that I will wake up in the morning without some idiot having trashed my house in the search for cash in order to buy drugs (something which will undoubtedly lead to more crime). As a student of politics I am more than aware of the debate between burglars' rights and the rights of home owners, but I think here liberals have gone too far. It takes being burgled to realise the sense of insecurity that rules somebodies life from that moment onwards. I think you should reconsider your views in light of this. To deny a burglar human rights is not a violation of his status as a human being, but the application of a fundamental principle underlying all democracies - Justice.

jailhouselawyer said...

Obviously you are as stupid as and have led as shelterd life as David Cameron.

I too have been burgled and did not feel that it was a pleasant experience.

However, removing human rights from someone does remove their status as human beings and only leads to them being abused by the state.

Victims should get justice but this is a separate issue. It should be remembered that first Hitler dehumanised Jews etc before the Final Solution.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that you had to resort to insulting me personally - I guess this proves the weakness of your argument.

Can you answer one question for me? If somebody violates and shows disregard for the law by breaking into somebody's home, then why should they then receive the protection of that very same law they have just broken?

For the record, I have not lived a privileged life, I grew up on a council estate in London. I am on full grant. What such an upbringing gave me was a sense of right and wrong, a sense of justice and injustice, and a belief that home is somewhere you should feel safe and protected.

Burglars violate all of those principles. Murderers and rapists right down to petty thieves violate those very same principles. Your opinion is the opinion of the vast minority, and whilst I admit that that in no way detracts the value of any argument, I think you should consider the reasons your view is the minority view.

Consult the Liberal "GOD" John Stuart Mill and his harm principle, and tell me that someone who breaks entry into a home, who violates the privacy that is one of your sacred human rights anyway, is not guilty of harming others.

jailhouselawyer said...

Actually, it is evidence of the weakness of your argument.

The law is there both to punish and protect. When a criminal breaks into a home it is the criminal law which is being broken. This is separate to human rights law which a criminal may use to protect his rights as a human being. Human rights are not there just for people who are popular but also for those who are unpopular.

John Stuart Mill is long dead and gone. On the other hand the Convention is only 60 years old and still going strong. I prefer the latter to be more relevant in this day and age.