Prisoner Suffrage – Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill
The Joint Committee on the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill – comprised of 6 MPs and 6 Peers –recently invited interested organisations and individuals to tender written evidence as part of their inquiry into Prisoner Voting. This follows pressure on parliament from the Council of Europe to comply with the ECHR decision in Hirst v UK. The draft Bill sets out three options: 1) Disqualifying prisoners sentenced to 4 years or more from voting 2) Disqualifying those sentenced to more than 6 months 3) Keeping the existing ban disqualifying all prisoners. In making the following submissions, I drew upon my own experience of prisons as well as the work of eminent scholars in sociology and politics. I called on the Joint Committee – which was willing to consider approaches beyond the three options proposed – to extend the Bill and support the enfranchisement of all prisoners, not just those with short sentences.
Re-offending rates in the UK remain incredibly high. 70% of prisoners re-offend within 2 years of their release. The average offender comes to prison with 10 convictions behind them. This is in marked contrast to many of our European counterparts and I believe this is in part to do with a lack of emphasis upon civic responsibility in UK prisons. We now have the 4th highest population of prisoners in Europe (as of June 2010). There are 18 EU member states with no restrictions upon prisoner voting.
There is a clear difference between the needs of punitive justice and those of rehabilitative and restorative justice. This can be a hard balance to strike, but if we are to expect prisoners to wilfully reintegrate with society upon their release then it is imperative that they are not ostracised and alienated by it during their custody.
The segregation of any individual from society is a severe punishment in and of itself, but for many prisoners it is also a deeply damaging experience. I believe people should be sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The loss of one’s liberty need not be compounded by degrading treatment or a detrimental quality of life. The effect of disenfranchisement is to dehumanise the individual. Disenfranchisement is symbolic of prisoners’ perceived predicament: shut out and ignored, inside or outside of prison walls. If we want prisoners to emerge from our penal system better citizens and better human beings, rather than disaffected pessimists, then we must involve them in communities. This is as much ideological as it is practical. Democracy requires us to be inclusive. Professor Robert Reiner, of LSE, attributes rises in crime to “structural inequalities and community fragmentation”.
Engaging prisoners in community initiatives fosters their awareness of others and creates that all important sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. The vote epitomises this pro-social model. If we are to encourage democratic behaviour – defined by Bernard Crick as tolerance, free speech, fair play etc. – we must give prisoners the vote. This is an opportunity for prisoners to engage with society in a place where such opportunities are all too lacking. John Stuart Mill argued that participatory democracy contributes toward moral education through the sense of responsibility it imbues in people.
Without suffrage, those on the fringe will remain on the fringe. If we believe in man’s potential for change, and their potential to become the civilised and reasonable humans expounded by theorists such as Locke, we must give prisoners the opportunity to engage in this process.
Aristotle said that man is by nature a political animal. The right to vote is considered such a precious human right because it strikes at the heart of what it is to be human. Enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau identified self governance as the natural right of every being. Sir Winston Churchill expressed these principles of democracy in a 1946 speech:
“We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the Declaration of Independence. All this means the people of any country have the right, and should have the power by constitutional action, by free unfettered elections, with secret ballot, to choose or change the character or form of government under which they dwell; that freedom of speech and thought should reign; that courts of justice, independent of the executive, unbiased by any party, should administer laws which have received the broad assent of large majorities or are consecrated by time and custom.”
Historically, the right to vote is deeply evocative of emancipation. The right to vote has thus become synonymous with basic human rights and the prohibition of discrimination. This draft Bill should be about protecting the inherent equality of mankind, irrespective of one’s circumstances. On this basis, it is submitted that any kind of ban on prisoners voting is unsustainable, irrespective of sentence length. It is not simply a question of what is legally robust, but what is morally robust. All prisoners deserve the same hope and inclusion. All prisoners need to be exposed to the same principles of citizenship for the rehabilitative effects of suffrage to be most profound. While prisoners already enjoy many of the fundamental human rights, true freedom of expression is impossible without the vote.
Any change in voting eligibility needs to be carefully explained to the wider public in terms of its key role in the reduction of re-offending. Rehabilitation begins inside our prisons but finishes on our streets and in our homes. A public that is better informed about rehabilitation is itself better able to assist in this process.
Inside Time ran mock postal elections in 2010, gathering important data on prisoners voting. Had these votes been counted in the last election they would not have affected the results in any constituency. The Electoral Commission’s postal and proxy voting mechanisms are ideally suited to prisoner voting. The Inside Time survey demonstrated that participation is unlikely to be overwhelming administratively. Prisons have a high concentration of the illiterate, unskilled, and those with mental and physical health problems – all of which makes their participation in political life more difficult.
Miscarriages of Justice
Victims of miscarriages of Justice are poorly represented under the current Act. According to the Ministry of Justice, 3000 of our citizens are wrongly convicted in our Courts each year. This is an issue of immense public interest. While these prisoners struggle to clear their names from behind bars, they have little by way of a voice. Yet, it is this very minority that is best equipped, albeit unenviably so, to engage with policy discussions about penal reform. Prisoners have access to the Courts, equality before the law, and the right to appeal. Under parliamentary convention prisoners can also write to their local member of parliament (in the constituency where they were registered before being placed into custody). Their cases can also be raised in parliament as Early Day Motions (e.g. EDM 865: Tony Stock – Miscarriage of Justice – 18/12/2012). Enfranchisement seems a logical step from all this. While there is a clear separation of powers, Government is responsible for sustaining an effective system of law. If we are to see such injustices handled more efficiently and expeditiously, if not avoided altogether in the future, then prisoners – particularly appellants – must have democratic rights. The wrongly convicted face a long and traumatic journey to freedom. Sean Hodgon spent 27 years imprisoned before he was found to be innocent. Suffrage based upon sentence length would exclude the majority of these cases. Granting prisoners the vote would ensure that more attention is paid to an important issue that affects thousands of innocent people and their families.
The politically excluded are the same people who disproportionately suffer social, economic and cultural exclusion. The key role of suffrage is to give this portion of society political expression through politicians who can table representations on their behalf. Adequate representation in parliament will allow politicians to more effectively probe issues facing the most underprivileged in our society. This is a key component in reducing crime, poverty, and unemployment in the long term. As Lord Ackner commented at the Conservative Party Conference in 1993, the causes of crime “lay deep in society, in the deterioration of personal standards, the family, and the lack of self discipline”. Equality of suffrage makes for a better society as a whole: “Democracy creates a morally better person because it forces people to develop their potentialities” – John Stuart Mill.
This is an opportunity for our Government to finally grant universal suffrage in an acknowledgement of the natural rights of man and the founding principles of democracy. As the Duke of Cambridge once said, the best time for change “is when it can be no longer restricted”.
Originally published in MOJUK ‘Inside Out’ issue 436 – www.mojuk.org.uk