Friday, March 18, 2011

Back on prisoner voting and dignity

I'm still pondering the prisoner voting controversy over here (see my last post). At first I thought it was a rather trivial issue, at least to one who is primarily concerned with mass incarceration and the deplorable conditions in many prisons in the US. After all many states of the United States strip prisoners of their right to vote for years after they have been released from prison, while the UK restores voting rights as soon as a prisoner is on parole. But as I've continued to listen to the debate here I find it more and more interesting. Here are some more (somewhat random) observations:

Many UK politicians seem to find it so obvious that prisoners should have no right to vote simply because they are prisoners, without regard to the nature of their crime or their overall sentence, that hardly any one has even discussed what a less blanket ban should look like (listen to an interesting interview on BBC Radio's Law-in-Action, with the UK Attorney General on this issue here). The European Court of Human Rights, Grand Chamber, whose 2005 decision in Hirst v. UK was ignored for five years until a second decision of the Court this November put it back on the agenda), is treated as if this simply came out of far left field, even though a majority of other European countries do permit prisoners to vote. The Grand Chamber's opinion only indicated that given the centrality of voting rights to contemporary European citizenship the denial of voting to prisoners requires at least debate and justification, if not selectivity. But Prime Minister David Cameron took the position that he had only to consult his stomach to determine that the ban was correct, declaring that it made him physically ill to even contemplate prisoners voting.

But why is it so obvious that stripping the vote from prisoners is an appropriate punishment? In contemporary society punishment appears to have two major goals (1) to create a sense of deprivation for those who commit crimes by taking away something they enjoy or impose something that is onerous (like a fine);(2) to incapacitate them from committing crimes or endangering the security of other citizens. We can put aside rehabilitation and reform which are not much celebrated in either the US or the UK today. Yet the curious thing about voting is that it is neither a pleasure nor a danger. Imagine that Queen Elizabeth announced that in honor of the upcoming Royal wedding, all prisoners in Her Majesty's Prisons could choose one of three privileges normally denied prisoners: (1) a night home with the wife (or husband or significant other); (2) a night out with the lads (or lassies) at the local pub; (3) the right to vote in the next general election. How many prisoners do you think would choose the voting booth over the bed or the pub?

Nor is it easy to see how prisoner voting could compromise the security of their fellow citizens. Even imagining that prisoner votes in a particular constituency might swing a close election, there is no reason to assume those votes would lead politicians to adopt policies of leniency or lax law enforcement in order to win those prisoner votes (because they would lose far more votes in doing so). Instead prisoners probably will vote for candidates on the same grounds that many other members of their social class (generally poor) do, in favor of more welfare, fewer cuts, etc.

This brings us to an important point. The only real reason to deny voting as punishment is to degrade prisoners, to underscore that they lack not just freedom, but equality in society. But that is exactly what the ban on degrading punishments in the European Convention on Human Rights (and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the US is also bound by) is all about banning.

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