Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Why prisoners should get the vote

In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK's Representation of the People Act of 1983, which denies prisoners the right to vote, breached the European Convention on Human Rights. They ruled that prisoners, including lifers, should be free to vote in order for the country to have "free elections ... under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature." However, for the past four years, the Government has ignored the ruling, listening instead to conservative voices that have vehemently opposed such a move.

However, on the 9th November, the Joint Committee on Human Rights warned the government that if prisoners cannot vote the next general election would be unlawful. The response to this announcement was, of course, the hysteria that dominates British politics. "They talk about prisoners’ rights – what about the people they maim and rob?" Demanded Lyn costello of the pressure group Mums Against Murder and Aggression, apparently unaware that the proposal doesn't involve preventing victims of crime from voting, insisting that punishment must mean "taking away their rights." Meanwhile, the Tories branded the idea "ludicrous," and claimed that we "have lost sight of the importance of balancing responsibilities."

It is important at this point to inject some perspective into the debate. Prisoners are not, despite conservative propaganda, kept in the lap of luxury, given Sky TV and computers, and insistently pandered to. Those who propagate this believe consistently overlook the fact that are prisons are now obscenely overcrowded, to the point where some prisoners are sleeping in the toilets, that there has been a forty per cent rise in the number of prison suicides, that bullying is rife, that number of babies born in prison has doubled in the last decade, and that the token attempts at rehabilitation and teaching new skills has been a massive failure. This is not to mention the recent condemnation of the UK by the UN for its policy on the jailing of children. Clearly, as much as the right would like to condemn our penal system as "soft" on crime, human rights abuses are rampant. More than this, as the reoffending rate and the availability of drugs in prisons demonstrates, prisons truly are the "universities of crime" that Pytor Kropotkin described them as.

So, giving prisoners the vote would be but a small step as far as improving our human rights record goes. It is, however, an important one, as it is a step in the right direction on several fronts. As well as opening up a dialogue about the treatment of prisoners with such a reform, it would also allow us to begin work towards a much more democratic system. As well as the central issue of voting that the First Past the Post system is unrepresentative of the will of the people (or, more accurately, even less representative than other forms of parliamentary democracy), the issue of prisoners voting highlights another flaw in our system. Convicts are not the only ones exempted from the right to vote. So, too, are members of the House of Lords, the Windsors, those guilty of election corruption, and the mentally disabled. Clearly, if we do not include all sections of society, no vote - even under perfect conditions and devoid of obstacles such as FPTP - can be considered legitimate or representative.

As it doesn't affect the rights of victims in the slightest, outside of right-wing hysteria, and it's only potential effect on the penal system would be the positive one of aiding rehabilitation by letting those convicted of crime take a more active role in local and national affairs, the arguments against giving prisoners the vote are weak, at best. More than that, in a country striving towards a prison state, with protesters (including elderly "council tax rebels") and minor offenders amongst those incarcerated, denying the vote to prisoners doesn't merely exclude murderers, paedophiles, and rapists.

And, frankly, with the free public already leaning more and more to the right, and the British National Party's support on the rise, even allowing them to vote could hardly make things worse, now, could it?