Human Rights

In Favour of Prisoner Votes

Yesterday a post appeared on this site that I disagreed with.  According to Libby T who wrote the post, “It is very simple. He or she who breaks the law should have no say in who makes the law.” (Emphasis in the original). I retort that I support democracy and that should also be very simple: one person, one vote, no exceptions.

I fail to see why we remove the ability to vote from prisoners.  I do not believe that preventing a prisoner voting would have any preventative measures. It is nonsensical to believe that someone who was determined to commit robbery might think, “I had better not break into the factory and steal  thousands of mobile phones because if I get caught, I will not be able to vote.”

It can be argued that a key purpose of prison is punishment and that punishment involves the loss of liberty.   We deny prisoners the liberty of freedom but we do not deny them human rights such as food. We do not starve our prisoners.  The question is should prisoners have the right to vote.  In my opinion the right to vote, a political right, is a fundamental right that parliament should not remove.

Let us consider an example to highlight a problem.  Imagine that two people commit similar crimes and as such they are both sentenced to similar sentences worthy of that crime: six month in prison. The key relevant difference is the timing of their crime and sentence: the first person serves his sentence over a general election and the second one does not. Parliament is elected for a term of up to five years. Assuming that both prisoners serve their full sentence and do not reoffend and assuming the time between general elections is the full five years, then both prisoners are behind bars for six months and are free for four years and six months. Even if one accepts that when in prison one should not have the right to determine who governs you, it seems unfair that for similar crimes that one person did not get a say in who made the law for his four and half years of freedom and the other one did. A shrug of the shoulders and a retort of “Hard luck, they should not have committed the crime in the first place” is not sufficient. It is a matter of fairness and in the example I have highlighted, one prisoner has been treated unfairly compared to the other for similar crimes.

The above argument, important as it is, would only apply to those prisoners serving sentences less than five years. This indeed would be a step in the right direct direction and would cover a large proportion of the prison population, but I wish to go further than that, I wish to argue that all prisoners should have the right to vote and that would include those serving life sentences. In an addition to yesterday’s post, Edmund Standing wrote:

Imagine the perversity of the potential situation which could arise in relation to Roshonara Choudhry, for example. She could be given the right to participate in the democratic process, despite being in prison for attempting to murder her MP.

I do not know Edmund’s view on the death penalty but his argument reminds me of an argument used by those who favour the death penalty for murder: those that take away someone’s life have no right to life themselves. I retort with the argument drummed into me by my mother from a very early age: two wrongs do not make a right. Roshanara Choudhry was sentenced to life imprisonment for her crime. I am not disputing her incarceration. While in prison she will have the right to eat. I believe that she also should have the right to vote.

While I do not believe that there are any plans to do so, and I would be horrified if a free country such as the United Kingdom ever attempted it, there is a fundamental problem that if the government can deny one category of person, in this case prisoners, the right to vote, then a principle has been set and at some stage another class of person might be denied the vote.

We can consider an extreme example. Imagine parliament passed a law that said that smoking was illegal and anyone caught smoking would be given a custodial sentence. Let us assume that a number of people ignored the law and carried on smoking and as a result they were all sentenced to prison just before a general election. That whole class of person would not be in a position to vote for a MP who would support a reversal of the law. While this example was purposely extreme, the principle is at stake: political rights should not be denied to prisoners.