This month, Peter Chester and George McGeoch, two prisoners who are both serving life sentences, appealed to the UK Supreme Court in an attempt to gain the right to democratically vote. The UK Supreme Court rejected the appeal upholding the UK’s blanket ban on prisoner voting. The European Court of Human Rights has already ruled that Britain’s refusal to give inmates the vote is illegal. But who is right? LS Debate asks, do prisoners deserve the right to vote?
David Cameron is reported as once having said that it made him “physically ill to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone in prison”. In order to avoid the Daily Mail-esque hyperbole that often surrounds this issue, it is essential that we assess the topic impartially. The question we really need to ask is this: what is it precisely about having committed (and being caught committing) a crime that denies a prisoner the right to political expression?
The opinion often expressed is that prisoners have proven themselves incapable of living responsibly in society by breaking the social contract of our laws. However, there is no way we can deny that a far higher proportion of people than those in prison have broken laws. Are we thus conclude that anyone who has ever taken drugs, or walked out of a shop without paying for something, or driven after one too many pints is not
entitled to a full set of human rights, even if they have broken the law just one time? It isn’t that any of these things are to be taken lightly; it is merely the case that they don’t seem to justify a revocation of one’s role in the democratic system.
Many people are driven to certain crimes by circumstance or the environment in which they were raised. External factors like childhood poverty have been proven to raise an adult’s likelihood of being involved in crime or drug use and, though it is little justification, it is worth considering that a result of the current laws is that the voices of those most powerless in society are being disproportionately suppressed. Denying these prisoners the right to vote excludes them from any influence on the very system which is supposed to prevent the poverty and desperation that may have driven them to crime occurring.
Furthermore, revoking the right to vote emphasises to prisoners that they are not ‘normal’ individuals who should, or even can, be rehabilitated into society; instead, they are labelled unfit for society and given no political status. Our prison system should be focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment, where
possible, and the protection of the public where not. Preventing prisoners from voting aids neither of these goals; it only works to alienate them from the political processes that influence their lives outside and inside prison. Engagement with political issues is a daily occurrence for the ordinary person and it undoubtedly helps individuals feel included and represented by society. In the interest of helping ex-convicts reintegrate into society successfully and permanently, alongside initiatives like education and skill-based learning, the right to political expression would be helpful.
Some may be uncomfortable with the idea that those who have broken laws, especially in a violent fashion, having a say in our democratic system but unless some arbitrary division is to be made, based perhaps on a subjective scale of violence or the length of sentence, we must apply the question of democratic rights to those convicted for minor crimes as well as major ones. It may be such a division will eventually be enshrined in UK law, following in the steps of 13 other European countries. However, it is my belief that our government should consistently uphold article 42 of the Human Rights Act: Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.’
Earlier this month David Cameron called the UK supreme court’s ruling that prisoners will not gain the right to vote a “victory for common sense”. The supreme court’s decision contradicts the rulings of the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg and it felt a little as if the Euro-Sceptic Tory leader was chuffed to get his mini victory over the powers of the EU. However, there is more to this debate than restricting the powers of the EU and, more importantly, the argument for preventing prisoner voting is much deeper than simply thinking in terms of ‘common sense’.
The main argument against prisoner voting follows the principle that prisoners have been placed outside of society due to their crime. This is the intrinsic idea that prisoners, especially those who have committed a serious crime, have been excluded from society for the very reason that they have refused to comply with the laws of society that protect and maintain peace for the people – the hard line argument being that those who have violated our liberty do not deserve the right to liberty itself.
A good example of this is the two prisoners who have been leading the recent campaign for prisoners’ votes themselves: Peter Chester, who is serving a life sentence for the rape and strangulation of his seven year old niece in 1977 and George McGeoch, who is also serving a life sentence for murder. George McGeoch could potentially have applied for parole after 13 years of his sentence but he has been convicted of subsequent offences including holding two nurses hostage in a 2001 siege in Dumfries. Both prisoners’ constant refusal to adhere to the defined laws and moral codes of society indeed proves that they have placed themselves outside of our societal structure and therefore do not deserve the vote. This argument should be extended to all prisoners. The principle of prisoners losing their right to vote really pales in comparison to the loss of life,
innocence and wellbeing for their victims.
The denial of the right to vote for prisoners is a complex notion and it is not helped by the general misconception that excluding prisoners from voting denies their human rights of democracy and inhibits their process of rehabilitation, recovery and reintegration into society. The right to vote is just a small part of normal life and there needs to be an increased effort to rehabilitate prisoners so that they understand the damaging effects their crimes have on society. Simply giving prisoners the right to vote in a society that they have explicitly rejected will not necessarily help.
This debate also calls into question the idea of what democratic rights truly are, the right to vote is not necessarily our greatest point of access to democracy. 2,352 inmates have brought forward their case to the EHRC and whilst the most recent case of Chester and McGeoch has been rejected, the fact that prisoners can still utilise the democratic right to protest, the right to question the powers of the judicial system and subsequently open the debate to the nation shows us that prisoners do have some form of political and democratic representation.
Prisoners do deserve human rights, but by contradicting the peace and stability of general society prisoners should retain only certain democratic rights. The democratic rights that are demonstrated by protesting for their right to vote – their right to protest, to voice an opinion and to question authority – should be upheld, but they should not be allowed to vote in a society they have morally and legally rejected.