Friday, 26 September 2014

Votes for Prisoners: No, It’s Yes…

Only a quick post today owing to pressure of my real work, I’m afraid. Around ten days ago I was asked by a reader of this blog to give my views on whether serving prisoners in the UK should be allowed to vote. Part of this post contains my answer, although there has been a more recent legal development as explained below.

As the BBC’s Home Affairs Correspondent, Dominic Casciani, has pointed out in a helpful feature article online, it has been nearly nine years since the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) handed down a judgement that the UK had a legal obligation to extend the vote to some prisoners at least. In effect, the current total blanket ban on voting by convicted inmates is unlawful. Needless to say, no British government wants to be the one that defies widespread public opinion by putting such a bill through Parliament.

Earlier this week, the UK Justice Minister, Lord Faulks QC, gave a promise to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers that Britain would sort the mess out. He assured the committee that the UK would fulfil its obligations.

Now Westminster has been given a reprieve since no further action will be taken until September 2015 – effectively kicking the issue into the long grass again until after the next general election. That will come as a relief to the Coalition, no doubt.

Yesterday, the Council of Europe issued a rather terse statement, more in sorrow than anger, that made clear its irritation that Britain is continuing to flaunt its legal obligations. The statement “noted with profound concern and disappointment that the United Kingdom authorities did not introduce a bill to parliament at the start of its 2014-2015 session as recommended by the competent parliamentary committee; urged the United Kingdom authorities to introduce such a bill as soon as possible and to inform them as soon as this has been done.” I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Name and number?
The voting issue is interesting. For a start, all remand prisoners who are on the Electoral Register are legally entitled to vote (either by post or proxy) under the Prison Act. That accounts for around 10 percent of the current prison population, so thousands of prisoners CAN vote. The fact that most nicks make no arrangements for them to do so is a serious failing of the system, in my opinion, and this issue needs to be tackled much more urgently.

One of the arguments that never seems to get aired is that prisoners who serve sentences in between general elections are unaffected by the present ban. This means that as long as they are back in the community (even if on licence) in time to re-register then they can vote like anyone else. Therefore, it seems that you only get disenfranchised if you happen to be inside jail around the time of an election. I’m not sure that this makes much sense.

I could understand it if we had a system (as exists in some other countries) where convicts lose civil rights, including the vote, for a set period of time after conviction regardless of whether they are in prison or not. However, as things stand it’s the actual timing of a prison sentence that deprives a con of his or her vote, not the fact of a criminal conviction.

Another anomaly is that if someone has been convicted, but is then granted bail ahead of sentencing, he or she can still vote if there is an election before the sentencing hearing. Someone who is sent straight down loses the right to vote. It does seem to me that the present system is a bit of a 'lottery’.

Not on prison wings anytime soon
I can certainly see an argument for allowing prisoners to vote. However, in practice - as with remands - I very much doubt that even if cons were given the right they would find it an easy process to get registered and then to cast their votes. And would they vote for an MP or MEP in their home constituency or in the one where the prison is located? I remember similar issues with university students some years ago.

Ten days ago, when I posted the comment above, I observed: “my best guess is that nothing will change any time soon”. In fact, it seems that I was right and we’ll have to wait until after the next election to see how whichever government is then in power deals with this tricky – and deeply unpopular – legal conundrum.


  1. Personally I feel that (generally) as a inmate has shown disregard for a law of the land they have no right (whilst being punished for said infraction) in having a say on whom governs us and makes laws.

    However, as you've pointed out there are obviously crazy 'loopholes' and the fact that our electoral system is highly unfair means that most of us are 'powerless' anyway.

    Until we have a fair system like New Zealand (see this article I think that the prisoners vote discussion is a waste of time and money.

    1. Thanks for your comments and the link. As you rightly note, the present system does have daft loopholes. For example, a person could be given a six-year sentence for a serious offence (of which they would serve three years in prison and three years on licence). However, if the custodial part of the term falls in between two general elections, they can continue to cast their vote as normal.

      In contrast, someone could receive a three-month prison sentence for something relatively minor, but they would lose their vote if an election was called while they were inside. The current system doesn't make any distinction between the seriousness of the offence, purely the specific dates of imprisonment.

      Moreover, a fair number of prisoners, particularly those who are serving short sentences, may continue to be taxpayers, especially if they have investment income or their own business which continue to be run in their absence. The same if they are retired and have a decent private pension. If they have been convicted and imprisoned they are blocked from voting for a government that they still continue to fund through taxation. This could be seen as another flaw in the present system.

    2. The voting issue really does infuriate me. It's the much bigger picture of whether the UK is on or out of Europe that is even more infuriating. We do tend to pick and choose what we want to do - we're in Europe but ignore what they say we should be doing - in or out - not something in between.

      Prisons work in similar ways, there are very distinct and strict rules set down in PSis they are routinely ignored. During my time inside I complained constantly about the blatant disregard of the nationally agreed rules. More often than not my complaints were upheld - in most cases I was told that staff acted inappropriately but of course there were no repercussions, no changes to regime and nothing changed.

      Prisons are an absolutely disgraceful environment for abuses against the 'rules', staff simply ignore them. Complaints are similarly ignored.

    3. Thanks for your comment. When I read your first line, I did wonder whether someone from the Tunbridge Wells blue-rinse brigade had discovered this blog and was about to vent his or her fury! Thankfully, when I read on I realised that this wasn't so.

      I think you are quite right when you highlight the ways in which the UK regards its international treaty obligations as commitments it can ignore with gay abandon - and with no actual consequences. The situation in our prisons simply reflects that cavalier attitude to the rule of law (open WCs in cells, use of illegal razor wire etc are just two prime examples).

      However, what is even more concerning is the way in which our domestic law is now routinely flouted or violated by public authorities with little or no comeback. That, of course, was just one ideological reason that Chris Grayling, the Lord High Chancellor of (In)Justice, has been so keen to restrict access to Legal Aid for the general public (ie the 'plebs' that the hard right so hates and despises). So what if the worm under the heel squeals silently?

      I think that what has happened to the general public is merely a logical extension to what happens to prisoners in our jails. As I've pointed out in previous posts, the way in which remand prisoners are routinely denied legal rights given to them by Parliament (including cell shares with cons, the right to wear their own clothes, being forced into labour, being blocked from voting) highlights the way in which the state authorities pay lip service to the rule of law and then violate it with impunity. None of this does anything to encourage offenders to respect the law.

      Moreover, cons who get a reputation for using the prison system's own complaints system can find themselves being targeted. I know of specific cases where prisoners have been threatened by managers that they will have their IEP status reviewed (ie downgraded to Standard or even Basic) if they continue to put in Comp1s, Comp 1as or Comp2s on the grounds of 'non-compliance', even though this is strictly against the rules. With Legal Aid now almost entirely blocked to prisoners in the UK, this means that abuses and blatant breaches of the law can continue without legal challenge or remedy.

  2. I accept your comments but I have to disagree to some degree.

    Many, many people break laws each day. Whether that be a parking ticket, speeding fine, a bit of shop lifting, unpaid tax etc etc etc. These generally don't invoke a prison sentence. Also an imprisonable offence can be suspended. (DLT just today for example). All of these situations allow the 'offender' the vote.

    It's simply not right that just because your offence requires you to be in prison at the time of an election means that you cannot vote.

    I know that this is an absolute extreme and would never happen in reality (in the UK at least). If it was a punishable offence to not vote for a particular party those folk not voting accordingly then find themselves in prison with no vote. Hardly democracy.

    People inside may have done some horrendous things to others, they are still human, still have an opinion and their vote should count.

    On the other hand the tabloids love to show prisons as being soft and suggest prisoners shouldn't have a say in the governing body ruling their lives. Inmates are still people, just not people politicians can be seen to be appeasing when they're desperate for votes.

    Blogs such as this should, hopefully, show the electorate just how absolutely expensive and incompetent the prison system is and how those at the top are completely inept.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I think you make some very relevant points. My concern is that these issues - and the bizarre anomalies that currently exist - are never seriously debated or analysed. Politicians simply use the criminal justice system and prisoners to get quick populist sound-bites or score points. This really is Westminster politics at its absolute worst.

      There could be a legitimate moral debate as to whether a convicted murderer or terrorist who is released on life licence should have the vote, while a petty shoplifter or someone jailed for drugs possession or a motoring offence who happens to be serving a sentence of a few weeks or months during a general election year is disenfranchised. It's all about proportionality.

      Or it could be argued that prisoners should participate in citizenship courses to better prepare them to cast their votes and to encourage a sense of civic responsibility. I've been in a prison that did run such courses and I think that these lessons filled a gap in the general education of quite a few cons.


    1. Thanks for that link. The PRT does make some interesting points on the subject. It's a pity more politicians haven't bothered to read this and other reports so they could approach what is undoubtedly a sensitive issue from a more balanced and rational standpoint.

  4. Barred from voting - why prisoners need to vote.

    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.

    1. Thanks for this helpful contribution to the votes for prisoners debate. It is very useful to read a summary of the current position in other countries, particularly within Europe. Things really have reached a pretty pass when South Africa and Hong Kong score better than the UK on prisoners' voting rights.

    2. I didn't realise barring prisoners from voting may actually harm rehabilitation work.

    3. Thanks for your comment. I think that it would be interesting to see why other countries allow convicted prisoners to vote. Is there evidence to indicate that being an active and informed citizen encourages rehabilitation? If so, maybe we should try it here.

  5. For me, one of the most important reasons why prisoners need the vote is because it is they who have been subjected to the full weight of the law. For example back when homosexuality was illegal, people ended up in gaol for it. Should those people not have been allowed a say that what they had been convicted for should not be a crime? I think it is an important balance that those bearing the brunt of a law should remain enfranchised. Otherwise some future totalitarian government could pass laws criminalising all protest and thereby disenfranchising their opponents. Obviously that's an extreme scenario, but forms of dissent are subtly being criminalised.

    1. Thanks for your comments. What particularly interests me is the reason that other countries have a different system to ours. Have they decided to allow serving convicted prisoners to vote because there is any evidence that encouraging civic responsibility (and an interest in political affairs) reduces reoffending or anti-social attitudes? If so, then surely we could argue that a similar effect could be seen here in the UK.

      As an historical aside, one of the lesser known facts from the American Civil War is that the defeated Confederate leaders - including the President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and the General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee - were formally stripped of their US citizenship, including the right to vote or hold elected office. Lee's citizenship and voting rights were only restored posthumously by Congress in 1975.

  6. I'm sorry but people are (generally) in prison because they have broken a law of the land and the idea that whilst being punished for that transgression they should have a voice in selecting those people we choose to govern us and create laws is positively farcical.

    Once rehabilitation has been proven then fine, but not until then in my opinion.

    1. Thanks for your contribution, It is good to see that we are encouraging a lively debate with comments from readers with different points of view. I suppose my response is to highlight some of the bizarre anomalies that currently exist.

      The vast majority of people who are convicted of criminal offences in the UK are not, of course, sent to prison. Most are fined, given community penalties or suspended sentences. Surely someone who is given 200 hours Community Payback or Probation is being punished for a transgression, yet they can still vote, as can convicted murders, rapists and terrorists if they have been released on licence.

      However, someone sent to prison for a few weeks for a motoring offence, nicking a bike, non-payment of fines or for not buying a TV licence a few days before a general election gets disenfranchised automatically. This has nothing directly to do with rehabilitation; it's more to do with basic common sense.

  7. If you treat a con like a responsible adult he/she will act like one, allowing cons to vote will encourage the childish ones to grow up and respect the law of the land

    1. Thanks for your comments. To be honest, I'm not really sure how many cons would actually bother to vote, even if they were allowed to. I do think that there is an important place for some form of civic education for prisoners, many of whom lack any understanding of how our country is actually governed.

      I was signed up for (and participated in) one of these Citizenship Courses while I was in a C-Bat prison. My class of fellow cons included some who had absolutely no idea what Parliament is, nor how laws are drafted or passed. A few didn't even know what or who an MP was or what they are supposed to do. I can imagine that it might be difficult to have respect for our laws among those who don't have the first idea how our political system functions.

      You can put this down to early exclusion from school or other types of disrupted education, but the fact is that there is widespread lack of knowledge among prisoners. Anything that aims to improve this situation has to be seen as a positive intervention.

  8. Guardian:

  9. Guardian

    The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that some prisoners in the UK should be given the right to vote. Photograph: Chris Young/PA

    There are plenty of voters who believe that prisoners convicted of crimes and receiving a custodial sentence should not have the right to vote. They should be punished, voting rights removed, do their time, put up and shut up.

    However, many people think prison should be about rehabilitation; a place to create opportunities for healing and personal transformation otherwise absent in the often highly dysfunctional and damaged lives of many prisoners.

    I have been part of the UK prison system since the age of 12, as a visitor to my long-serving father, as an inmate and, since serving my last conviction in 1989, as a workshop facilitator and writer in residence in prisons throughout England and Wales.

    A prisoner's rehabilitation as a safe, responsible and productive member of society must include the most basic right of democratic process – the right to choose who governs us. To remove this right dehumanises prisoners. Our streets are rife with blue and white collar criminals, convicted, on bail or simply waiting for the fateful tap on the shoulder. Currently, if individuals are convicted of a crime but not given a custodial sentence they are still allowed to vote; why should they be treated differently from convicted criminals who are locked up?

    We must not confuse a criminal conviction and subsequent removal from society (an often essential part of the process of rehabilitation) with a need to remove the essential human right to vote. This was the basis of the recent EU decision to insist that the UK gives the vote to its prisoners. Europe has a wide and varied response to the issue. Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland have no ban on prisoner voting rights. In 13 other European countries, electoral disqualification depends on the crime committed or the length of the sentence.

    The 1983 Mental Health Act uses a system of individual assessment to determine a patient's eligibility to vote. Perhaps, using a similar system, the decision to allow prisoner voting rights could be based on the nature and severity of their crime? A process could be set up that would follow a parallel path to parole procedure as part of tracking a prisoner's rehabilitation and readiness to re-enter society.

    The prisoners I work with are human beings who each have a reason for committing their crimes. Taken out of the daily grind of crime they quickly see the need for a process of rehabilitation and help in stabilising their lives; lives more often than not destroyed by economic deprivation, family breakdown and addiction.

    Perhaps if voting rights were given to UK prisoners, politicians would take the rights, needs and interests of some 90,000 inmates more seriously. They would need to canvas inside prisons for votes and listen to the voices of the wide range of citizens we have behind bars. Part of this canvassing could involve a genuine focus on the long-term rehabilitation of the individual. This in turn could lead to reduced reoffending rates and maybe, just maybe, a society with fewer criminals and fewer prisoners.

    1. Thanks for re-publishing this piece from the Guardian. I think that it does raise several interesting issues. The key problem with any assessment of competency for prisoners when it comes to voting is that a similar system could then be seen as an attractive policy to apply to the general population. In the present climate, I could imagine rightwing governments pushing to limit the universal franchise to many others who aren't in prison.

      Perhaps the first to get disenfranchised would be those who don't pay income tax - that would be return to the 'old' traditional class-based system and would get rid of most of the poor, teenagers and students, a large percentage of women and quite a few pensioners. Next could come anyone who claims benefits or who lives in social housing.

      Eventually we'd end up with the vote being restricted to home owners who pay income tax - just like we had back in the 'good old' Victorian era when 'people knew their place' and the poor knew how to doff their caps to their 'betters'. It's a frightening prospect, but no doubt it would appeal to those politicians who own country estates with tennis courts and duck islands, as well as those who made it into Oxford's Bullingdon Club.

      As for prisoners, given that prison system is unable - or unwilling - to address the de facto disenfranchising of the 10 percent or so of the prison population who are held on remand, unconvicted of any crime (and therefore as legally entitled to vote as David Cameron), I'm really doubtful that any kind of assessments to qualify for the vote would ever be carried out. We currently don't even have enough screws to ensure a weekly trip to the prison libraries, let alone anything else!

    2. You talk about the disenfranchised and its possible expansion, how about reversing the whole dynamic and making people earn the right to vote, etc by attaining citizenship through various social 'good works' or achievements, thus ensuring that those who do not want to engage positively do not benefit via those that do.

      Obviously there must always be safety nets, both social & financial for the truly unfortunate but not for those who make conscious choices.


      According to "UK Political Info", only 65.1% and 61.4% of the voting population bothered to vote in the 2005 and 2010 General Elections, 59.4% bothered to vote in 2001. The percentage of the voting population who voted between the General Elections of 1945 and 1997 ranged between 70% and 85%.

      I guess a similar percentage of the Prison population would be bothered to vote, therefore eliminating the need to assess the competency of each convict to vote.

    4. Interesting idea, although a bit beyond the current votes for prisoners debate. The problem, as usual, is who would make such decisions?

      I'm reminded of one of the principles of Mussolini's Fascist Movement on 'free' speech: "We offer the right to express an opinion to those who are qualified to hold it"... and who made that decision, why the Party, of course!

    5. Thanks for your comment and statistics on recent general elections. One of the surprising things is just how right wing many prisoners really are. I suspect that if given the vote, quite a few would vote Conservative, maybe a fair number of others for UKIP or even more extreme right wing parties. Perhaps Cameron and Grayling are missing a trick here!

  10. Oh right, it was a 2 minute job.

    1. It would be interesting to see how many cons voted when they were free men/women.

      Venuzuela permits its cons to vote, however they tend to vote against the political party in power when they were sentenced.

    2. Thanks for your comments. It's difficult to say, but obviously we can eliminate anyone who was inside at the time of the last election, as well as all Young Prisoners (18-21) since none of them would have been old enough last time round. The same would go for any current prisoner who has been 'starred up' to an adult prison from a YOI.

      Then you would have to remove any con who didn't have a fixed abode in 2010, plus all foreign nationals (except citizens of the Irish Republic who have a right to vote in UK elections) and immigration detainees. So already, I think that's a fair whack of the present prison population excluded.

      My best guess is that the people who are currently prisoners and who voted before imprisonment would be some of those who had fixed addresses back in 2010. I'd also suspect that a majority of those who did vote either had a job or were retired - but I may be wrong.

      The fact is, the only very small sample I can rely on were those members of my Citizenship class who discussed voting issues back in 2012 and most of my cell-mates who were ex-professionals and who all voted, like me. I suppose that if you are a taxpayer or a pensioner, then chances are you voted because you had a vested interest in the outcome.

  11. On a different subject, how are visits to dentists, opticians and other outside agencies arranged? I know you can pay for an illicit haircut with a couple of cans of tuna, but how would the prison normally deal with haircuts?


    1. Thanks for your questions, Peter. There are different systems. Prisoners held on remand have a legal right to pay for private medical or dental treatment (assuming they have the means). Convicted prisoners have to make do with what is provided by the local NHS, although to be fair some of the treatment is excellent.

      Some closed prisons do have internal dental facilities, but most don't and appointments have to be arranged with practices that have been security cleared. Some also have a contract with local opticians who come into the nick under NHS funding.

      Cons who are in closed prisons who have outside appointments have to go escorted by staff and in handcuffs or chains. It's pretty humiliating (or so I'm told), so many people serving short sentences often prefer to suffer in silence or just ask for pain-killers for serious dental problems they will get sorted out after their release.

      One of the major problems with any external visits at the moment is last minute cancellation owing to chronic staff shortages. This tends to happen very regularly now and it can sometimes take three or four appointments before a prisoner actually gets escorted for treatment. If you are in agony or need regular treatment for cancer or other life-threatening conditions, to be honest the outlook can be pretty bleak.

      I've worked with several people living with cancer inside prisons and sometimes the way they are treated is barbaric. One who has terminal bowel cancer told me how he was left screaming on the floor of his cell all weekend because he was told by healthcare staff it was "just bad indigestion" and he was given some Rennies.

      With haircuts, some prisons do appoint an official barber who gets paid around £8 or £10 per week and they provide him with hair clippers. However, these tools aren't usually very well cleaned or disinfected, so lots of people either buy their own via the prison from the Argos catalogue or pay to borrow from a mate. Even the official barbers tend to charge a chocolate bar on the quiet. It all depends whether you want a decent 'lid' or prefer to look like Homer Simpson on a bad day... your choice.

      A few prisons do have proper hairdressing salons as they offer vocational qualifications and train cons as barbers with a view to working in this business. Cons can sign up for these lads to practice on as part of their course, supervised by professional hairdressers. These cuts are free.

      I have also known several cons who were professionals themselves on the outside. In fact one of my pad-mates had worked for Toni&Guy. Most prisons only allow clippers, although I have found scissors in Cat-Cs and Cat-Ds (open prisons), so the styles on offer can be limited. Most cons opt for a very short style... what used to be called the BBB crop ('Bad Borstal Boy').

  12. I read you must apply to the Prison for a complete hairstyle change otherwise you are in big trouble.

    1. Thanks for your comment. There is some truth in this because of prison ID cards, which every con has to carry with them when they are out of their cell.

      The real issue tends to be facial hair. If a con comes into prison with a massive Karl Marx-style beard and then decides to go clean shaven, that would count as a significant change of appearance, as would someone who wished to grow a big beard. In theory, he would need to submit a written app for approval, but in practice a word with a wing screw about getting a new ID card photo taken usually suffices.

      I suspect that the rules may be tighter in the high security estate (Cat-A) for obvious reasons, but certainly in Cat-Bs and Cat-Cs I've never known this to be a big issue. Early in my sentence I once opted to have a 'BBB' crop myself - a number 1 - and this involved the removal of a fair amount of hair, however, the only comment from the screws was that it really didn't suit me!