Barred from voting - why prisoners need the vote

rows of prison cell windows from the outside

There are few or no votes in prison reform and little interest in the rights and responsibilities of those behind bars. One of the reasons is that prisoners themselves can't vote.

Five years ago today the European court of human rights ruled that the UK's blanket ban on prisoners' voting is unlawful and in violation of Article 3 of the First Protocol of the European convention on human rights.

Since then the government has employed a range of delaying tactics to avoid implementing the ruling. The UK is normally regarded as having a good record in complying with European court decisions, but it seems that successive justice ministers have been preoccupied with political considerations and fear of adverse headlines, rather than fairness or the rule of law.

Disenfranchisement is a relic from punishments of the past dating back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870. It is based on an idea of civic death and the withdrawal of citizenship rights and responsibilities. A far cry from what we would expect from a 21st-century justice system and a modernised prison service. People are sent to prison to lose their liberty not their identity.

A coalition of senior cross-party politicians, church and faith leaders, former offenders, human rights charities and prison reformers is calling for sentenced prisoners to be given the vote ahead of the forthcoming general election. Parliament's joint committee on human rights has also criticised undue delays and has called on the government to introduce an urgent remedial order to put matters right. In 2008 the committee warned in its annual report that "there is a significant risk that the next general election will take place in a way that fails to comply with the convention".

As the ECHR said, barring prisoners from voting may actually harm rehabilitation work, since participating in elections is likely to encourage them to become responsible, law-abiding citizens. The Prison Governors' Association and other senior managers in the prison service in England and Wales believe that voting rights and representation form part of the process of preparing prisoners for resettlement in their communities. They acknowledge that granting prisoners the right to vote would neither threaten public safety nor be difficult to implement, given arrangements for postal voting.

Bob Cummines, chief executive of Unlock, the National Association of Reformed Offenders, points out: "It would make more sense to encourage them to engage with social issues through the ballot box rather than continue to reinforce their exclusion from society which often causes them to commit crime in the first place."

The UK seems to have lost its way when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of its citizens in prison. As we stall, the government in Hong Kong has just concluded a sensible public consultation exercise prior to enfranchising all, or most, of its prisoners.

Handing down a landmark ruling that all prisoners should have the right to vote in April 1999, the constitutional court of South Africa declared that: "The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally it says that everybody counts."

According to the joint committee on human rights, the UK is now also out of step with most European countries. Prisoners may vote without restriction in 17 countries and may frequently or sometimes vote in a further 13. The UK is one of only 12 countries where people in prison are still stripped of their voting rights.

The Prison Reform Trust has now made a formal complaint to the Council of Europe about the government's failure to comply with the court judgment and amend UK election law. This should be done without fuss and further delay.

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