Allowing prisoners to vote would do more good than harm – so why have we barred it?

Prisoners are one of the few groups in the UK barred from voting. There have been calls to end this restriction, in response to verdicts from the European Court of Human Rights, which has on several occasions ruled the UK’s ban on prisoner voting to be unlawful. The European Court of Justice, on the other hand, has declared the ban to be lawful. Consequently, Parliament has been able to ignore the ruling for more than a decade; David Cameron has previously commented that the thought of giving prisoners the vote made him “physically sick”.

What is the reasoning behind denying prisoners the vote? Is the loss of their vote intended as a deterrent? It seems unlikely that most criminals are deep in consideration about who they’ll be voting for in the upcoming local elections whilst they’re breaking the law, and if the death penalty doesn’t work as a deterrent (which it doesn’t), then why would denying them the vote be any more effective? Once this reason has been discounted, the other main justification appears to be that it is intended as a punishment, but this is surely an outdated style of justice. Punishing people by denying them their human rights feels like it’s encroaching on dangerous territory – would we like it if other rights were denied to them as well? If they were tortured or starved?
The aim of prisons in the modern age should be less about retribution -which does no good, and only increases recidivism -and more focused on rehabilitation. Indeed, Cameron has recently spoken on the importance on reforming prisons, in order to shift the emphasis to rehabilitation; what better way is there to show prisoners they can still contribute to society than allowing them to vote? Some people may view this as being “soft on crime”, but the fact is, truly harmful crimes will always be illegal, and no amount of prisoner voting is going to change that. It may even be helpful in pushing for changes to unfair laws to be changed. Moreover, voting could give prisoners a sense of citizenship, a sense of being part of society, and a reason not to harm it. If Cameron is serious about these reforms, he needs to get past his apparent revulsion to this idea.

If Britain were to allow prisoners the vote, this would enable us to play a more active role in campaigning for this as a basic human right across the international stage. Think how much of a difference it would make if we could push illiberal regimes towards allowing prisoners to vote; it would make the imprisonment of dissidents a far less effective method of rigging elections. At the moment, our hands are tied – Britain campaigning for prisoner rights in other countries would be as hypocritical as the US campaigning to end the death penalty worldwide – but this is exactly what we need to be doing.

People may find the idea of prisoners voting distasteful, but that is not in of itself a reason to ban it. It would not harm society; in fact, it could do a lot of good, both within the prison population and to the country as a whole. We can hope that prisoner voting will come up as part of Cameron’s prison reforms, but I would not be surprised if the issue continues to be ignored. After all, there are few votes in prisoner voting.


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