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The Big Debate: should prisoners get the vote?

As David Cameron enters a face-off with the European Court of Human Rights, this week’s Badger asks, should prisoners receive the right to vote?

YES — Cello David
To not believe in prisoners gaining the right to vote, is to not believe in democracy. JFK once said that “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” But what gives him or anyone the right to decide whose voice is ‘ignorant’ and whose is not?

Democracy, as with human rights, is not something we can pick and choose at; it is put in place to protect and represent each and every one of us. It is certainly not meant as a tool to subjugate and alienate minorities.

Similar to the point illustrated in Niemöllers poem First They Came, if we allow a person or body like the government to decide for themselves who can hold them to account, or indeed if any of us believe we can dictate who is worthy of enfranchisement, then where does this stop? It’s irrefutably a slippery slope.

At the heart of democracy is the concept of accountability, and key to accountability is universal enfranchisement. The moment you start allowing exceptions to this is the moment you cease to live in a functioning democracy. Ergo, to believe prisoners do not deserve the right to vote is akin to rejecting democracy.

Some hold the view that voting is the right of a citizen, and once someone offends they lose those rights. However, if you take for example the February 2011 report by HM Inspectorate of Wandsworth Prison which described the treatment of offenders within the prison as “demeaning, unsafe” and falling below “what could be classed as decent,” it no longer remains an issue of citizens’ rights and becomes an issue of basic human rights.

Without equal access to accountability, basic human rights are never assured. Not granting prisoners basic human rights can only have a detrimental effect; who can argue that the 32 incidents of self-harm and 11 deaths that occurred in Wandsworth during 2010 were anything other than a deficit of basic human rights?

Those who support the removal of a prisoner’s right to vote also stand in the way of rehabilitation. This is a grave error if you wish to live in a safe and stable society. By not enfranchising potential voters you allow them to feel alienated from society, mentally in addition to their physical alienation, making the process of reintegration into society even harder than is necessary. Maybe this is why the reoffending rate last year was 1 in 4.

Clearly there is something fundamentally wrong with the system for the rate to be so high. If you take a look at countries that allow the prisoners the right to vote, they have far lower reoffending rate than England. Norway, for example, has the lowest reoffending rate in Europe.

Surely if giving the vote to prisoners helps prevent recidivism then it is a move in the right direction, not to mention key to democratic legitimacy.

If you are sceptical of the correlation between reoffending and rehabilitation, then you can still empathise with the policy of universal enfranchisement and rehabilitation on a human level. Democracy is about the equal say of all voices, not the suppression of those voices we deem to be wrong.

This was the very reason the European Convention of Human Rights was put in place. It was created to counter the suppression under which Stalin’s Russia put its people and the subjugation of those voices it didn’t deem ‘correct’.

At a human level we know we have a duty to stand up for the basic democratic and human rights of all, regardless of who they are. To punish with no view or aim of rehabilitation is simply malicious; as Socrates said, “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.”

We must believe in a basic set of universal human rights that each human being should be granted with no exceptions. The right of prisoners to vote must be one of these rights

If you do not believe that prisoners deserve this you should at least believe democracy deserves this. Because without the enfranchisement of prisoners, democracy loses its legitimacy and the country loses its humanity.

 

NO — Louis Patel
Giving prisoners the right to vote? Come one, that one really doesn’t make sense. Prisons are there for a purpose, the most obvious being to separate those who are deemed a threat to society out of society. Surely to give the vote to those who have been removed from society or abused society is an affront to our democracy and a mockery of the system.

The issue the government are facing is two dimensional: firstly that of the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) telling us how to run our judicial system, and secondly the plain issue of prisoners having the vote.

It would be wrong for the government to bow to the ECtHR on this one, as it is simply something Britain really does not want to do: no one British has voted for it, have they? I firmly believe that now is the time for us to redefine our relationship with Europe, but more importantly for us to stick to the principle that it would be wrong to allow prisoners to vote.

On the issue of the simple question, should prisoners have the vote, I do not want to advocate a harsh criminal justice system run purely for the punishment of individuals convicted of crime. My personal belief is that prisons should reform inmates while also protecting society from dangerous individuals. It would be very easy to say that by giving prisoners the vote that it would help them learn responsibility, but that surely questions what prisons and the justice system is there for.

The consequence of committing an offence is removal from society, and one of society’s aspects is the right to vote, so why should that be excepted from the consequences of crime? If prisoners feel a yearning to vote, their aim should be to get rehabilitated and, upon release, regain that right (of course, our prison system would need to be reformed and improved to achieve this goal). I completely agree that prisoners need to be taught citizenship, but that can be done internally, not by devaluing the vote.

On the issue of Europe, it does seem wrong that once again we need to have to comply with something which many citizens haven’t even voted for or been given the chance to give their consent to.

However, I also think it’s wrong to let Europe define this issue too much. Although it is an example of how European human rights law has too much influence over the UK, it should not intrude on the key question.

It is truly laughable to say by denying the prisoner a chance to vote, one is violating their human rights. Although a prisoner is of course not inhuman, as some ridiculous hardliners say, there has to be some forfeit to make prisons valid. But do we really want to have to go down the route of letting Europe once again dictate what we should and shouldn’t do? This should be our chance to stick two fingers up at Strasbourg once and for all and say, in the words of Thatcher, “No, no, no!”

If this did go through, then let’s be frank, what can Parliament do anymore? If it can’t reject a change that many don’t want then surely it loses something.

But returning to the central question, we simply shouldn’t tamper with our judicial and prison system. As I’ve already argued, the prison system does need to reform to help it rehabilitate and truly cut crime, but this really isn’t the way.

It would mean redefining what consequence there should be from crime, not something which needs addressing. What the government should be doing is tackling the causes of crime and aiming to stop reoffending, not to have some squabble with the ECtHR. This simply is not something we should sit back on and let happen; we should fight to keep a system which doesn’t need changing. Prisons should be about separation and rehabilitation. Let’s not change that.

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