Skip to main content
07 December 2010

Blog: “Denying prisoners the vote is unlawful and uncivilised”

People are sentenced to custody to lose their liberty, not to be stripped of other fundamental human rights. In South Africa, all prisoners have the right to vote. Handing down a landmark ruling in April 1999, the constitutional court of South Africa declared: “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.”

Since the 1990s, the Prison Reform Trust has worked with allied agencies, and former and serving prisoners to ensure that people in prison are treated as such – as people – and this includes acknowledging their right to vote. The UK can take pride in a prison service that requires everyone in prison to be treated with decency and respect, regardless of the crime they have committed or the length of their sentence. Denying prisoners the right to vote has no place in a civilised justice system.

When you hear young men in jail arguing passionately about the importance of voting and confronting doubters – “if you don’t vote you don’t care so don’t blame other people if you end up with hate politics”, they say – then you realise how keenly disenfranchisement is felt. Before the general election I took part in a local prison debate, which included the parliamentary candidates. Topics ranged from the war in Iraq to the overuse of bureaucratic targets in public services. Would-be politicians were taken aback by the seriousness and intensity of the debate; none of the candidates had been to a prison before.

For over six years, political considerations have deflected the UK government from complying with an unequivocal judgement by the European court of human rights (Hirst v UK 2004) that the blanket ban on prisoners’ voting is unlawful. A more recent judgment by the European court (Frodl v Austria 2010) further limits the UK government’s room for manoeuvre and clarifies that disenfranchisement may be imposed by a judge on a small number of prisoners who have been sentenced for electoral fraud or a related offence.

The message that we can pick and choose which laws we obey is a poor one, for people in prison and for society as a whole. Now the coalition government has the opportunity, through its programme of constitutional reform, to put an end to an archaic punishment of civic death dating back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870. This will bring the UK into line with the vast majority of countries in the Council of Europe and enable a modern prison system to focus on civic responsibility and rehabilitation not social exclusion.

The prison service sees no practical problems in enabling sentenced prisoners to vote. The Electoral Commission set out, in its response to the Ministry of Justice’s second consultation on prisoners voting in 2009, a mechanism by which prisoners could be enfranchised though a system of postal or proxy voting. The Prison Governors Association is on record as supporting prisoners voting as an important part of rehabilitation and resettlement. Through its own audit procedures the Ministry of Justice has been systematically seeking prisoners’ level of interest in voting and is known to have received positive responses.

Instead of being pressed into responding to court cases and compensation claims, the government should use its authority to overturn this outdated and uncivilised ban.

Juliet Lyon

This article appears on the Guardian’s Comment is Free.