Prisoners’ right to vote: Should UK succumb to EU pressure and give criminals a say in society?

By Matt Jones

When John Hirst returned to his lodgings on June 23 1979, he could not have anticipated that the events of that day would lead to a radical upheaval of prisoners’ rights in the UK.

Mr Justice Purchase, when sentencing Hirst to life imprisonment for the manslaughter of his landlady Bronia Burton, described him as ‘an arrogant and dangerous person with a severe personality defect’.

Despite these ‘flaws’, as well as his capacity for horrific violence, in October 2005 he won his case at the European court of human rights in Strasbourg, where it was unanimously found that the UK’s blanket ban on voting contravened Article 3, Protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights.

Since the court case, successive governments have ignored or sidestepped European pressure to take action, and while MPs have loudly voiced their objections to the ruling, rejecting it by 234 votes to 22 last year, it seems that the European Court’s deadline in six months time is a final one.

A recent YouGov poll found that 67% of Brits are against allowing prisoners vote, though MM revealed in last week’s Piccadilly Pulse that Mancunians are a more forgiving bunch, with 55% supporting the enfranchisement of convicts.

Conservative MP David Davis, who has been noisily critical of the European ultimatum, said: “This will inevitably lead to a clash between the express wishes of the UK Parliament and the assertions of the European Court.”

When their express wishes are to uphold the ban on sentenced prisoners voting though, a relic of the British legal system and an antiquated, draconian law dating from 1870, the European Court’s assertions become indispensible rather than intrusive.

It was conceived by the Victorians in an era when it was common practice to forced death-sentenced prisoners to share their cells with the coffins that would later hold their corpses.

Prisoners become temporary outcasts from society but not from our system of rights and democracy, and though an inmate’s dignity and self-worth may be lost with the fall of the gavel, their humanity will wearily soldier on.

Student Cat Hall, 19, of Fallowfield, said: “They are human beings after all. They are still UK citizens, and therefore they are affected by the UK’s political issues.”

It seems as though those who deny prisoners’ right to vote do not fully understand the purpose of incarceration.

While a stint in jail acts as a stern punishment, they are as institutions not intended to wreak a medieval vengeance upon those confined within its walls.

More important, however, is its rehabilitative role, to help foster social responsibility in those who have flaunted it.

One of the objectives of Her Majesty’s Prison Service is ‘providing safe and well-ordered establishments in which we treat prisoners humanely, decently and lawfully’.

To treat them humanely, though, necessitates acknowledging their humanity.

“People have to see themselves engaged with the society they are part of,” said Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the UK’s oldest penal reform charity.

“Being part of the decision-making process is part of being a responsible citizen. Giving the vote is one small step in being engaged with civic power.”

Retired soldier Alfred Kerr, 45, of Wythenshawe, stated: “As soon as you break the law, all your rights should be taken from you, and anyone who thinks otherwise should be locked up too.”

If it is true, as former Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken asserts, that ‘the vast majority of prisoners do not even want to vote’, then many will wonder why the incident has caused such a furore.

The right of a citizen, though, does not diminish in relevance or legitimacy the longer it is denied.

Student Daniel Locke, 22, of Rusholme, said: “Democracy is the right to vote for everybody, not just the people you agree with.”

Prisoners are allowed to vote in 14 European countries, including Ireland, Spain and Sweden, and there are 16 more where prisoners have limited voting rights, including Germany, France and Italy.

Our nation’s stance on the rights of prisoners has put us in rather ignominious company.

The only other members of the EU who still deny voting rights to sentenced prisoners are Bulgaria and Romania, the worst performing countries on the Human Development Index, which takes into account levels of poverty, education and health, as well as Hungary and Estonia, who fare little better.

It is telling that we are resolutely clinging to a law upheld by some of the continent’s least developed countries.

Mr Cameron, who has taken a defiant stance on the issue, stated: “It makes me physically ill to contemplate giving the vote to prisoners.

“They should lose some rights, including the right to vote.”

It would make most feel more than a little queasy, that some of the country’s most dangerous and disturbed criminals could indelibly influence Britain’s political landscape.

However, with their potential newfound democratic heft prisoners could well feel physically ill at the thought of endorsing Mr Cameron with the votes he so eagerly denies them.

It may be the case that those amongst the country’s 88,000 condemned who gain the right to vote will use it against the ConDems.

How prisoners will vote, though, pales in significance to what having the vote will mean.

The issues of overcrowding, expense and violence, constants in a prisoner’s day, would instantly become more politically pertinent.

The ability to vote in local elections will necessitate a change in the relationship between convicts and local government, as well as focusing attention on regional successes in terms of employment and resettlement.

Many people with the capacity to inflict pain and suffering would still have the capacity to make reasoned and rational decisions at the ballot box

Much in the same way, sensible and judicious individuals will impose suffering and inadequacy on others as we do by denying prisoners the vote, an electoral stepping stone to a functioning role in society. 

Mancunian Matters would like to apologise to John Hirst for any inaccuracies that occured in the original reporting of this story, and thank him for his help with the piece.

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