Garry Lee argues Britain is right to uphold the EU directive about giving prisoners the right to vote.
In the fourth section of the European Court of Human Rights Annual Activity Report 2004, a prisoner serving a life sentence raised his disapproval for his lack of voting rights as a result of his imprisonment. As of the 30th March 2004, the ECHR deemed this to be a violation of his human rights. Fast forward to 2010 and the case of John Hirst vs. the UK (74025/01) has led to a ruling that either roughly 70,000 prisoners are to receive their right to vote after 140 years of ‘civil death’, or the government will face a compensatory bill of around £160 million.
John Hirst is a rehabilitated prisoner who spent his early years in a Barnardo’s care home, and 25 years of his life in prison. His transformation into a campaigner for prisoner’s rights was brought on by the lack of a communicative channel between prisoners and the government. Hirst described his battle as being with three factors: “ignorance, prejudice and fear”. He argues that by restoring prisoners voting rights, we can allow those people the opportunity to get involved in society in a positive way. This is a view that is supported by the Prison Governors Association. They believe that voting rights could play an important part in both rehabilitation, and in the resettlement process. This does, on paper, make a certain amount of sense. How are we able to combat reoffending rates if those who have been imprisoned aren’t being given the chance to change?
In response to this development, David Cameron has claimed it makes him “physically ill to even contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison”. Part of the problem with voting rights for prisoners is the way that the media and the government have framed and constructed this issue for the public. Prisoners aren’t being given ‘new’ rights, their rights are being restored after being taken away by the 1870 Forfeiture Act, and being brought into line with the majority of developed European countries and with human rights standards set by a recognised European authority on the matter. Moreover, extending a limited amount of voting rights to prisoners is something that leader of the Liberal Democrats has agreed with previously. In his 2006 article written for the Guardian, Nick Clegg said that “the proposal that there should be conditionality in the right to vote for prisoners is in line with the overwhelming practice in developed democracies, and is a direct response to a recent European court ruling which called for “proportionality” in the rules governing prisoners’ votes”. The split between the viewpoints of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders is to be expected; but is not something up until now which has been widely reported or questioned.
Whether or not this right should be extended to all prisoners is still up for debate, but given David Cameron’s own personal feelings on the issue and the fact that the fine details of the law are being left up to the UK, it would be surprising if this was initially a blanket form of vote entitlement for prisoners. A blanket voting entitlement is something that Juliet Lyons of the Prison Reform Trust has been campaigning for. Lyons recently took part in a local prison debate with parliamentary candidates, and she noted that the candidates “were taken aback by the seriousness and intensity of the debate” and that “none of the candidates had been to a prison before.” The extension of voting rights to prisoners could signify a renewed interest in a long overlooked and largely forgotten group of individuals, in spite of their past mistakes. David Cameron needs reminding that while he may be talking of an inclusive Big Society where people take an active interest in issues and in their communities, John Hirst has given him the ability to create one.