Wednesday, 17 November 2010

'No Incarceration without Representation'

Now the dust has settled on the Prisoner Votes issue I think I will have a stab at this one.

I have thought about this one a lot lately and come to the conclusion that generally I am in favour of prisoners having the vote.

It’s very, very easy to take a reactionary view on this issue. It immediately seems objectionable that nasty horrible murderers or rapists or paedophiles should be given the vote. But this needs more thought..

The general reactionary ‘logic’ goes something like this.. ‘When someone commits a crime they lose their rights...and that’s what they deserve. They weren’t thinking about their victim’s rights when they committed the crime – so why should they keep their rights?’

At first glance it seems logical. But under a bit of scrutiny it starts to fall apart.

‘When someone commits a crime they lose their rights...’ Er. That doesn’t sound right. When someone is convicted of a crime they don’t lose their rights at all. They might lose their liberty but not their rights. They are not outlawed Robin Hood style at all. We don’t cast them out of our society. On the contrary we dedicate a lot of the time and resources of our society to incarcerating them.

We don’t starve them, or torture them – we don’t resort to barbarism. We very specifically do not deny someone their basic rights because they have committed a crime. And to suggest that we should is a crude and frankly daft ‘eye for an eye’ argument – back to the stone-age...

Just because someone does commit a crime, it doesn’t mean that our society should suddenly abandon it’s commitment to basic human rights and suddenly treat a convicted prisoner as some worthless sub-human that can be treated to any indignity...

But hang on a bit. Aren’t I getting a bit carried away here? People are only suggesting that Prisoners shouldn’t get the vote here, not that they should be chained to a wall and flogged with barbed-wire...

Sure. But actually learning from history and not resorting to the folly of crude ‘eye for an eye’ justice is what this is all about. It is about basic human rights and some simple principles.

As things stand, the right to vote is, as defined by the European Court of Human Rights, a basic human right.


Well. The basic logic is that governments should be constrained from being able to imprison people who disagree with them, and in so doing, silence the voting power of their political opponents. The basic principle is that governments should not be able to pervert democracy for their own benefit.

Clearly that makes sense. If you isolate this from the reactionary idea of giving paedophiles the vote then it just sounds logical, sensible and mature. And given what happened in Germany not many years ago, or happens today in Iran, or Iraq (until recently) or any number of countries where dissent is an imprisonable offence, it seems to make perfect sense.

It’s just has the consequence that even those convicted of the most heinous crimes are entitled to vote..

 But actually that doesn’t seem a massive price to maintain an important inalienable principle does it?

Because fully functioning, legitimate democracy really is important. And the consequence of prisoners not having the vote is that they don’t have any political representation. For me that’s quite an important point.

If you or I have a problem we can go and see our Member of Parliament about it and they are obliged to help and advise – as a well known political website is titled – ‘They Work for You’.

But right now a convicted prisoner can’t do that. No vote = no representation. In practice an MP is under no obligation to help a prisoner.

I find that wrong. Injustices do happen. The system is not perfect, or even close to perfect. There are people who have little or no outside support, who are thrown into prison sometimes for a crime they didn’t commit, who languish for many years and who need someone on their side. Not just someone who can make a legal case, but someone who can help them get the support they need – someone who is accountable to them.

So I support the basic principles of human rights and their practical application. Let’s not waste time and energy in trying to come up with some complex set of rules for which kinds of prisoners can vote and which can’t.

Let’s just accept that the right to vote is, for very good reasons, a basic human right.


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