Saturday, October 24, 2009

Votes for Prisoners

For the uninitiated, this is a tale that has gone on for 5 years and involved the Government revealing utter contempt for the law whenever it conflicts with electoral advantage. As a method of reducing their threadbare legitimacy amongst prisoners, the votes fiasco is central. How can we accept lessons on being law-abiding from those who evade the law with such deliberation? Five years ago, John Hirst (who blogs as jailhouselawyer) delivered a parting shot as he left prison. He challenged the blanket ban on prisoners voting. As demonstrated by my recent piece at the Guardian Online, this issue raises some people's hackles. Nonetheless, it should be noted that this ban is a relatively recent development (within the last 130 years) and it has never been debated in Parliament. It is an issue worthy of substantive and widespread debate. Jailhouselawyer won in the European Court. The Court held that the blanket ban was unlawful and the Government should look at allowing at least some prisoners the vote. The Government appealed but the Grand Chamber upheld the original decision. A small but vital part of the judgement related to lifers. If you read my previous post attempting to explain life sentences, you will appreciate that they are split into two parts. Only the initial part is the punishment period, the rest is on grounds of 'public safety’, a form of protective detention. The Court held that none of the reasons that the Government gave for denying prisoners the vote applied to lifers who were past their punitive period (the ‘tariff’). We should be amongst the prisoners who have that right. The Government response was to promise a period of public consultation. It delayed doing this for three years or so. It then said it would conduct further consultations, which are only now coming to an end. During this time, Minister after Minister has denounced the Court and its judgement, and maintained the stance that no prisoner should gain the right to vote. It has shown a level of contempt for the law that even prisoners find breathtaking and we are not easily impressed. The latest salvo in this campaign has recently been fired by the Minister of Justice himself, who declared that the Government wouldn't alter the law before the next election. At the European level, Jailhouselawyer continues to badger away. The Council of Ministers has deplored the Government’s delaying tactics and insists they properly address the Court judgement by December. We will wait and see how that plays out. On the domestic level, though, the issue is about to get very heated. A lifer, who is post tariff, is in the High Court to challenge the Government’s mendacity and insist that, as he is no longer held in prison for punishment, then he should have his right to vote before the next election. This carries a personal disappointment for me, in that I had hoped to be the one making the challenge. I was beaten to the draw. My strategy was as much political as legal. As a post-tariff lifer, and my crime not being one of the most repulsive, I intended to insert myself into the public eye and challenge public conceptions about prisoners. My crime is serious enough to raise the relevant political and moral issues around the vote, but not so repellent as to have the public throw up their hands in total horror. Further, it was my aim that in gaining post-tariff lifers the vote then the Government would have no political barrier to giving it to all prisoners. After all, if you can give something to murderers and rapists, the Daily Mail can hardly blow a fuse if this is extended to thieves and burglars. I thought this was a clever strategy on my part, even if I do say so myself. Given the reaction to my blog, I think that I was right in my calculations. But alas, I'm not going to be the one in court. All I can do is stand on the sidelines and make the arguments. The man who is taking the challenge is a more, shall we say "difficult", proposition in PR terms. Legally, we share the same status but politically he is a more contentious figure. His crime poses the problem - the rape and murder of an 8 year old girl. The votes case being at least as much politics as law, I could see that he may not be best placed to have the debate. And I asked him to step aside and allow me through; a request he politely declined. Whilst he raises the same legal issues, I fear that his past will make the political battle more difficult than it should be solely due to public reaction. His offence will overshadow the issues. But who said politics was easy? We must work with the circumstances as they are. I intend to try to make a virtue out of these difficulties, arguing that this lifer’s offences raise no new issues but are so awful that they sharpen the issues that need to be debated. Giving the vote - giving any rights - to people is easy if they are popular. It is the people that are despised that need them the most. We will have to wait for the outcome of his legal challenge to see what the future holds. All I know so far is that the Government has behaved shamefully and risks the startling prospect of the next General Election being rendered illegal. And remember that they do this not out of some grand political or moral principle, but only because they don't want to carry the burden of being the party that gave convicts the vote.


  1. I can see no reason why prisoners shouldn't be able to vote. If there is any hope or intention of people being "rehabilitated" - even lifers - then they/you should have every opportunity to play as much a part in society as possible, within the restrictions of your being a prisoner.

    Prisoners should have access to education, meaningful work and training, visits from friends and family, medical treatment, access to news and entertainment, and yes, the right to have your voice heard... deprivation of liberty is surely enough punishment, for whatever length of time fits the crime. When you - and fellow prisoners - are eventually released, it should just be the next step on a continuum to your rejoining the rest of the world.

    I suppose the only problem with having the vote would be the impact on the numbers in a particular constituency... a large number of prisoners might skew the vote somehow. But I'm sure there are creative solutions to that, if anyone is prepared to consider the question.

    By the way, as a new reader of your blog, Ben, I find you raise some very interesting issues. I'll keep reading.

  2. Kate J: In those countries which allow prisoners the vote, voting takes place by postal vote and the prisoners must vote in the constituency where they lived when they were charged with the offence. In this way it avoids the chance of skewing if voting occured from the prison.

  3. Nothing truly worth doing is ever easy.

  4. If prisoners are given the vote then I wonder whether they'll be more likely to use it than the rest of us.

    I see only one reason to vote at present: to pay lip service to our failing political system. The general election lets us express a preference between barely-distinguishable parties, with policy documents that we cannot trust them to follow. The bureaucracy has become full of over-paid professional bullshitters and remains loaded with impenetrably boring debate, so it is detached from our real lives. Every party says they will reform the system to make it more local and democratic, but do we have any reason to believe them?

    The change we need, to avert our social crisis, is far more radical than anyone could ever explain through mass media. British people are too absorbed by their own immediate interests, and easily manipulated by powerful individuals and agencies. Anything that isn't completely in line with the status-quo is easily marginalised as excentric or extremist.

    The BNP is used as an excuse to avoid introducing any real democracy -- we are told that if common people are given the freedom to make decisions, they will turn into fascists. So we are stuck with the pathetic British custom of finding a halfassed compromise from the outset, and mediocre debate that gives us tunnel-vision. Even supposedly highbrow British programmes like 'Question Time' just encourage people to mindlessly regurgitate the headlines of the day, where every question could be quoted almost word-for-word from the broadsheets. If only people would switch off their televisions for a few years and learn how to think for themselves, then we might open up the range of debate.

    As it is, I doubt many people with busy lives will stop to vote at the next election, unless the media use their fearmongering to whip up more support for the BNP.