Give prisoners the vote

This month I spent some time studying the Victorian prison system as part of my history degree. Nineteenth century reformers made sweeping innovations in an attempt to encourage prisoner rehabilitation, but in reality their changes drove many inmates to insanity and did little to steer them back on a path to righteousness.

British prisons have come a long way since then and over the past century there has been much to be proud of. However there is one area in particular staining the British system – the fact that prisoners are denied the vote.

For many years this was seen as an obvious, unquestionable fact. Prisoners have harmed others and turned their back on society, so why should they have a say in its governance?

This argument is a reasonable one, and was largely unquestioned until 2005 when a series of European court rulings began challenging it.

Twelve years on, the British government now looks set to scrap its blanket ban on prisoner voting. Justice secretary David Lidington could soon open the vote to those serving less than a one year sentence and on day release.

There are two main reasons why prisoners should be allowed to vote; firstly is the preservation of human rights. There are instances where specific rights have to be suspended – if someone breaks the law it is reasonable to suspend their freedom of movement.

However, to start taking away additional rights for added punishment is very dangerous. If the right to vote can be taken away from prisoners, why not remove their right to be free from torture? When human rights aren’t respected in prisons they become easier to undermine in wider society.

The second argument is as follows – voting can improve inmate rehabilitation. The overwhelming majority of British convicts will at some point be released back onto the streets. It is in the interests of the British taxpayer and society that inmates don’t reoffend and can at some point start contributing to the economy.

Rehabilitation works best when inmates are shown their place in wider society. Norway, in particular, has shown great success in this. Refusing prisoners voting rights will simply convince them further that they have no place in society and they will therefore continue to be a burden.

My argument is not intended to downplay criminal behaviour, nor spare justice to those who deserve punishment.

It is simply in the interests of law-abiding citizens that human rights are upheld and prisoners rehabilitated.


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January 2022
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