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Taking the cross into prison: It is time to give prisoners the right to vote

2010 February 12
by Paul Vallely

Jack Straw is probably now regretting having dragged his feet for the past four years on the question of whether or not to give people in prison the right to vote. It was in 2005 that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that banning prisoners from voting violates Article 3 of the Human Rights Act. The British government appealed against the ruling and when it lost launched a serious of time-wasting consultations – which may well now have come back to bite Mr Straw on the ballot-box.

This week a high-profile coalition of judicial experts, politicians and lawyers warned the government that continuing the 130-year-old prohibition could result in costly widespread legal challenges from the UK’s 83,000-strong prison population after the election. The ban, which Britain is one of the few countries in the world to maintain, “has no place in a modern democracy and is legally and morally unsustainable,” says the Barred From Voting campaign.

The disenfranchisement of convicts, which goes back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870, is rooted in the concept of ‘civic death’ which insists that, by their crimes, prisoners lose their moral authority to vote. Jail constitutes an internal civic exile which involves the withdrawal of citizenship rights. The view of both the Labour government and the Conservative leadership is that civic rights go with civic responsibility – and that their loss is temporary, legitimate, proportionate and reasonable. Any change would weaken discipline in jails.

But there is a cogent argument to the contrary, as was set out by the Catholic Bishops Conference in its 2005 document A Place of Redemption, which I should declare I had a hand in writing. The primary causes of crime today, it said, are related to social exclusion. Prisoners are already on the margins of society and ‘civic death’ only exacerbates their sense of alienation.

Two of the aims of prison are that it should protect the public and deter other criminals. The voting ban adds nothing to either of those. But it does undermine the other key purpose of prison: the rehabilitation of offenders.

One of the key things prison must do – in which it singularly fails in two-thirds of cases at present – is to inculcate in prisoners a sense that they have a continuing stake in the society to which they will return. Encouraging them to play a positive role in shaping their futures by their own efforts and commitment is part of the psychological and spiritual realignment which a truly rehabilitative regime inside prisons should embrace. The right to vote is thus not a moral reward, but a tool of reformation.

Restoring the vote in jails would be one step in the creation of prison regimes which treat prisoners less as objects – done to by others – and more as subjects who can become authors of their own reform and redemption. “The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood,” said the constitutional court in South Africa in 1999 when all prisoners were granted voting rights. That principle undermines Mr Straw’s earlier proposal that the vote should be restored only to first-time offenders and those guilty of minor offences. Something absolute is at stake, irrespective of the length of the prisoners’ sentence, the gravity of their crime or their individual circumstances.

The truth is that the current ban on prisoners’ voting is part of the business of forgetting about prisons and the people in them. If prisoners could vote then perhaps MPs might pay greater heed to the problems of prisons and the issues faced by their inmates – such increasing rates of suicide and widespread drug-use inside and the routine unemployment and homelessness prisoners face on release. If MPs did that, things might be better for us all.

From the Church Times

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