By David Binder
If nothing else, the question of whether prisoners should be allowed to vote has certainly raised a few pulses in political, media and social circles lately. The recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) dictating that prisoners should be allowed to vote in elections (albeit with the caveat that UK ministers can choose which prisoners can vote) and the UK parliament’s overt intention to ignore this dictate (see David Cameron’s recent comments on the issue) contributes much to debates around incarceration, basic civic rights and prisoner personal development. One could even go as far as to say that this debate has relevance to Britain’s place within the ‘European Project’ itself.
In regard to incarceration, it is interesting to note that in conveying arguments against allowing prisoners the vote, many commentators and politicians have expressed the view that because prisoners are in prison to be punished, and to be deterred from committing crime, the incarceration that goes hand in hand with these aims should mean that they shouldn’t be allowed the vote. In other words, many feel that the process of a person entering custody should go hand in hand with the loss of certain human rights (as defined by the European Convention on Human Rights). Alternatively, some, whilst accepting that certain human rights are indeed separate from the loss of liberty, still believe it reasonable for the human right to vote to be taken away whilst someone is in prison. Interestingly, it is clear that most of Parliament registers with either or both of these views given the outcome of the vote on this issue in February 2011, where only 22 MP’s voted in favour of giving prisoners the right to vote in elections.
In discussing the issue of incarceration and its link to basic human rights, it is crucial that we understand and clearly define what prison is and what its fundamental aims are. If a person has broken the law, in full knowledge that if they are caught, charged and convicted for the offence then they could be incarcerated (thus incurring a loss of liberty the outcome of incarceration is arguably justified. Therefore, if the penal system does only have a mandate to curtail one’s liberty, then serious questions have to be asked when the penal system is seemingly acting beyond this mandate and intervening in other areas.
To elaborate further, we need to ask ourselves what exactly is prison for? If it should as well as a place of punishment, incapacitation and deterrence be a place of personal development, then the issue of whether to allow prisoners the vote becomes increasingly relevant. A widely accepted part of personal development has been to attempt to get prisoners ready to re-enter society and actively engage within it. As such, allowing prisoners the vote plays a key role here. That is to say, given that voting in elections is a key way to demonstrate civic and social engagement it surely makes sense that prisoners whilst they are in prison are allowed to vote in preparation for their release into wider society where these people be expected and encouraged to do this. In other words, it is arguably helpful to think of giving prisoners the vote as an issue of ‘good citizenship’. If we want prisoners to emerge from incarceration and actively engage in society, then it surely makes sense that this group are informed, allowed and encouraged within the prison environment to participate in the democratic process.
More broadly, this whole debate feeds into a wider debate about the role of Europe, and in particular the role of the ECHR in protecting the human rights of EU citizens. Two interesting issues arise here. Firstly, what does the recent rejection of the ruling on prisoner voting rights by the UK Parliament say about how many in the House of Commons regard the UK’s relationship with the European Union generally? And secondly, what does this ruling say about how the UK parliament feels about the ECHR in particular? That is, in regard to dealing with human rights issues, the government clearly feels that it can choose to enact or ignore certain rulings that aren’t to its liking. In this case, the government arguably believes that certain unpopular minorities (prisoners in this case) should be denied basic freedoms, despite these prisoners already being punished via their loss of liberty in prison.
All in all, despite strong opinion to the contrary, one would argue that all prisoners should be allowed the vote. Denying prisoners this right goes beyond the remit of the penal system (to restrict the liberty of the prisoner), raises questions about the UK’s relationship with Europe in regard to upholding human rights (particularly in relation to ‘unpopular’ minorities) and most importantly, has the potential to both stop the civic engagement of the prisoner within custody and negatively impact upon the prisoners rehabilitative prospects after leaving prison.
NB: The following link gives the list of all MPs who voted on whether to support the current situation, where prisoners are not allowed to vote and ignore the ECHR ruling.
 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/may/22/prisoners-right-to-vote-echr, Accessed May 2012
 http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2011-02-10b.493.1, Accessed May 2012
 Whether prison currently serves these purposes adequately is highly debateable.