Big Debate: Ballots Behind Bars

Despite pressure from the European Court to enfranchise prisoners, David Cameron continues to dismiss the idea. This week Big Debate asks, should prisoners have the right to vote?

YES:Tim Hakki

David Cameron’s refusal to allow prisoners the vote in accordance with the European Court of Human Rights is just another action that is both ludicrous and repressive. Let’s not forget that under his rule we’ve seen some of the most extreme rioting and criminality yet. Today we are still feeling the residual effects from Thatcher’s Britain. She single-handedly created a new class on the socio-economic spectrum: the ‘underclass’. This comprises of displaced people from the working classes who feel that there is little incentive to work or care for society. The ‘underclass’ was just a step towards the dilemma that we see ourselves faced with now. Socio-economic disparity has reached its logical conclusion with Britain’s prisons being described as so packed they’ve exceeded their ‘operational capacity’.

In an altruistic society prison should be a rehabilitating punishment. Most prisoners are not wholly wicked 25-to-lifers like Ian Huntley. An integral part of the rehabilitation process is engagement with and not isolation from the civic process. A person is more likely to reoffend if they are made to feel antagonistic or dislocated from the rest of society. Also, Britain locks up a lot of people and prison overcrowding is a real problem. There are currently nearly a hundred thousand prisoners in the UK. Denying them the vote means suppressing the views of a sizeable demographic that also possesses a strong critical voice. I am treading into risky waters with the next statement, but perhaps if you asked what exactly the prison vote is, I doubt the tories would come out favourably. And considering their marginal victory at the ballots last election, there is something conspicuous about continuing to enforce dated policies that deny people voting rights.

I make these bold assertions having spent the first twelve years of my life in Bow, a district famous for housing the Bow bells and being the spiritual home place of both the cockney and the East-London suffragettes. It is the locus for stereotypical notions about dole-culture. It is also an area of high criminality, and a sizeable number of the kids I went to primary school with had a close family member in jail. One of my earliest memories there is voting day before Tony Blair got elected in. There was absolutely no question in the room that all the local families would be voting labour.

Prisoners must have the vote, like everybody else, because without it they are denied any degree of an autonomous future. Those that currently have the right to vote are not affected by issues such as prison overcrowding. As things currently stand, it is possible to effect a radical change in prison policy without taking into account the views of those it will actually affect. In a democratic society a punishment must be fixed and proportionate to the crime. Since the topic is fresh in our minds, I’ll use an extreme example. If, god forbid, Nick Griffin should hypothetically gain some power, he would reintroduce penal colonies and take our judicial system back to the level it was at the height of the draconian British empire he so fondly cherishes. Such a radical change in policy would be enforced without the opportunity for protest from our prisons.

Ihave often remained impartial, at one point I might have even had a little faith in Cameron, but his leadership has often felt uncomfortably like a dictatorship writ small. If  the Prime Minister wants Britain to be a global example of democracy,  then his stance on its people’s rights, prisoners or not, must be addressed.

NO: Ella Grimwade

In a society where disinterest in voting and dismissal of the effectiveness of our voting system and modern democracy is alarmingly high; the concept of “the right to vote” can’t afford to be further de-valued and undermined. Through giving the vote to individuals who, for the period they are in prison, have basically been identified as individuals who cannot be trusted in the public life, we would be sending out the message that voting is less important, less significant, less respected by the people who should be acting on what we use the vote to say.

Voting is undoubtedly a right anybody who is lucky enough to be a citizen of the UK. However, citizenship itself revolves around the principles that individuals and the state are engaged in a bilateral agreement. Through being a member of British society you have a right to expect certain rights and privileges, fundamentally amongst them the ability to participate in choosing your political leaders and the people who are (in theory) shaping the policies which affect your life. In exchange we as individuals and citizens promise to uphold the morals and laws of the society we are living in and shaping through our democracy.

Upon committing a crime, prisoners are intentionally inflicting a wound on society. They break their agreement with, not just the state, but the whole of the rest of the public. For the period during which the judicial system – an institution intended to protect society from an individuals who may be dangerous to it- deem necessary for someone to remain in jail, they have forfeited their claim to citizenship. To be a citizen, you have to be invested in participating in society in a positive manner. If you can’t be considered safe to physically interact with the people you share a nation with, how can you be considered legitimate to participate in a process which fundamentally shapes their lives?  How can people who have demonstrated an intent (and action) aimed at hurting society be involved in a system which is meant to reflect the views of that society on how best to protect and improve it?

Prisoners are not being denied the right to vote forever. After serving their time being rehabilitated to the point where they want to engage peacefully and positively with society, their right to franchise is restored and they can help to shape the society they are again a part of. Being able to vote is part of rehabilitation and taking an interest in society; something which potentially signifies to an ex-convict that they are being trusted as a citizen. That they can start again.

It is difficult also to see a positive result coming from the enfranchisement of convicted criminals. To what extent would the prisoners’ – a relatively low demographic overall – votes actually change the end result ? Also proportionally, the numb er of policies which would affect those in prison is low, and surely the nation could not see sense or fairness is prisoners having a voice in the policies which effect those of us on the other side of the prison bars?

Leave a Reply