Friday, October 23, 2009

The Benefits of Prisoners Voting

The principle legal and political arguments for extending the franchise to prisoners have been rehearsed elsewhere (, passim). The practical benefits of such a development, the positive results that accrue, are less often discussed.

One fear that is paraded as a principled objection to prisoners voting is that we will exercise undue influence over MP's. The result, it seems, will be our demanding to be given the type of lifestyle that the tabloid press and more desperate MP's claim that we already enjoy.

In all but a very small number of constituencies the number of prisoners voting will amount to little more than a whisper in a gale. In some though, such as the Isle of Wight, then the preponderance of prisoners may well hold the balance of power between the political parties.

This is not to be feared; it will merely be the most extreme manifestation of one of the most important benefits that result from prisoners voting - to raise the issues of penology out of the political gutter. At present, very few MP's pay any attention to the prison in their constituency. Even fewer give thought to the prisoners and none that I know of ever hold surgeries.

This deliberate neglect of our concerns can hardly be divorced from the fact that prisoners do not yet exercise political influence. Once we have the franchise, MP's will doubtless take a sudden interest in prisons and prisoners. Whether this will have any practical effects on the landings must remain a mystery, but one benefit will be certain: MP's will gain an education into the realities of imprisonment.

The public atmosphere has for far too long been polluted by the mindless, uninformed belching of politicians who are desperate to grab the votes of the middle classes. In that cause, they happily pronounce in Parliament and scribble for the newspapers the most trite, banal and ignorant comments relating to prisoners and our conditions. Their knowledge of the reality is best described as feeble.

But with a prisoners franchise must come significant and sustained contact with prisoners and their conditions. In this sense, I feel that the franchise can only increase the sum of the general good. Politicians will feel constrained from indulging their ignorance as their appreciation of the prison system grows.

It follows from the increase in knowledge that issues relating to prisons that arise in Parliament may be debated with a quality previously unknown, and that the scrutiny they aim at the Ministry of Justice may be sufficient to ease the worst excesses of government stupidity that we labour under. The keen eye of the more active MP's may challenge the Prison Service to recall that they have citizens in their custody, and not merely the dispossessed.

We need not look to this grand political stage to see the advantages of political involvement. If MP's take an interest, even if out of political self-preservation, and make themselves available to address prisoners’ concerns then the effects could be felt on the landings. The shape that daily prison life takes could be altered. This is not going to be a case of every frustrated prisoner resorting to “I'll tell my MP” in the face of negative decisions. MP's are neither stupid nor puppets. But if MP's take up even some of the inconsistent decisions, abusive or degrading treatment, or plain stupid ideas with the Governor then the situation may alter.

Bit by bit, the involvement of prisoners in the political process may begin to recast the topology of power in prisons. Prisoners may - just may - grow a little faith in their own abilities to play a part in legitimate processes. For generations we have been forced to accept the idea that because we are allowed no responsibility, then we must be irresponsible. Prisoners rarely bought into this belief, but those who deigned to rise up to speak found that there were no forums in which to be heard.

With the vote there inevitably comes a small measure of responsibility. Prisoners can legitimately enquire why, if we are able to help decide the fate of governments, we are not given an opportunity to discuss or decide the myriad of small issues that comprise our daily lives? There is no answer to such a question, for the ability to vote marks the individual as a citizen, as a member of the society and as a capable human being.

And once prisoners grow comfortable in the clothing of responsibility, no one can predict how it will develop. A person who has spent his life with contempt for legitimate processes, who has been abandoned by the twists and turns of society, may find that he does have a place in the world.

These potential benefits are rarely discussed and their potential hardly developed. The debate around the prisoners’ right to vote is itself indicative of the contempt that can be fostered for a group that is politically dispossessed. The vote will change the terms of the debate. Nationally, it will help to hold government to account for the immeasurable waste of human life and purpose that comes with imprisonment. Locally, it forces politicians to face the daily reality of prisons and prisoners. And for society, it holds out the hope of reclaiming those who have until now been cast aside. What, then, is there to lose?


  1. I am aware the EU ruled there should not be a blanket ban on prisoners voting. I also have read about the differing applications throughout Europe and the USA. I am also aware that the government are consulting on the issue looking at relaxing the rules for some category of prisoner or length of sentence imposed. I have always held the principle that if someone commits an offence which attracts a custodial sentence they have broken their contract with the rest of us citizens and forfeit the right of citizenship whilst in custody. I have always seen voting as a contract between the state and citizen and this has been the basis of my views. Offenders break that contract by their actions which must bring consequences regarding your rights to live amongst the rest of us and enjoy the privileges which us law abiding citizens earn.

    I really think you live in cloud cuckoo land if you think that being able to vote will in anyway change prisons, penal policy or the lot of prisoners. Of course in some areas where prisons are situated, prisoners may be courted for their vote. They may well bombard MPs with difficulties but their complaints will be passed on to the Justice Department who will then forward them to the Governor to deal with. That is what happens to the rest of us!!

    I do not like you writing bald statements such as the immeasurable waste of human life that comes with imprisonment. There is also an immeasurable waste of human life for traumatised victims and their families. Many of their lives are ruined too and through no fault of their own. You mention that prisoners may feel that they are members of society whilst in prison if they are given the vote. My interpretation of society may well differ from yours as I see society as people living together for mutual benefit. If I elect people and institutions to deal with those who do not want to abide by mutually agreed rules to maintain the stability of my society, then violation of these rules means that you cannot be a member of society whilst you are serving a prison term for violatin the rules. You must continue to have rights as a human being yet cannot demand the same rights as me on how best to govern that society.

    There is no doubt that the rules will probably be relaxed. The only people I would agree to permit to vote would be those people who have been remanded in custody and are on the electoral register at the time of the remand. That seems fair as they have not been convicted in a Court. I am sure that others will be granted voting rights and I just hope that it applies to those who are on the voting register at the time of sentence. Being on the register means that one is a responsible citizen. It entitles the citizen the right to vote as well as contribute to the community through levied charges.

  2. a certain extent I see where 'anonymous' is coming from but I think the compromise is that prisoners should be given back their right to vote when a certain time has passed depending on their particular circumstances, and I think the right to vote should definitely be reinstated as part of the preparations for release. I mean, do they seriously expect someone to just go back into society and function effectively after being removed from it for maybe 20 years??

    Also, anonymous think about this - maybe they ended up in prison in the first place because there was no-one in their lives to show them how to negotiate that contract in the first instance, so as well as being a punishment, prison is a way to help these people understand the contract and honour their part it for the first time in their lives?

    I remember when I worked in a job centre sometimes we'd occasionally get people who'd just been released from prison coming to look for work and the look of utter bewilderment on their faces at the way the world had changed since they'd last been a part of it was quite fascinating but also sad at the same time.

    It's interesting to note that a large number of disabled people have a very hard time accessing the voting process too, we are subject to gross misrepresentation in the media (especially when it comes to Incapacity Benefit) and even when we DO vote, nobody takes a blind bit of notice of us either!

    In fact the more I read your blog, the more I see that your section of society and mine have a lot in common!

  3. I tend to side with Gaina rather than Anonymous on this one. Regarding those imprisoned as outside of society is dangerous. It is dangerous because those outside of society can be seen as not deserving the care or attention of society.

    One of the ways to judge a society is how it treats its unfortunates, prisoners and the disabled included. I would rather live in a society run by Gaina because prisoners get released and the better integrated into and a part of society they feel the less likely they are to lash out at it.

    It is those who feel they are put upon by society and not part of it, like the so-called underclass who cause most of the problems of society. It also raises the issue that if these people are not part of society, why should they abide by its rules?

  4. When people aren't allowed to make rules for themselves, they won't respect other people's rules.

    People behave in ways that meet expectations, so we should set high expectations of everybody.

  5. if prisoners are outside of society and have broken the social contract (which is itself a myth...), then why are they expected to comply with societys laws? It is in or out, we cant have it both ways.