Why prisoners should be voting

Neil has written for Hagley Road to Ladywood and Liberal Conspiracy. He won’t be voting in this year’s elections and here’s why.

6 years ago a British prisoner called John Hirst went to the European Court of Human Rights demanding that our government give him and his fellow inmates the right to vote. The court ruled that our blanket ban violated the Human Rights Act, and ordered the government to make the necessary changes.


I cannot, in good conscience, exercise my legally-guaranteed right to participate in the democratic process when tens of thousands of Britons are illegally deprived of theirs. For that reason, I will be staying at home come election day. Not out of apathy, nor out of a lack of available alternatives, but as a small protest against a big injustice.

I support his cause, and side with the European Court of Human Rights in their call for the blanket ban to be lifted. But I must respectfully disagree with his actions.

Voting is not some grand moral duty – and for most people it won’t even be the most political thing they do that year – but I feel that not voting for this reason is not the best way to register a protest.

Neil’s eventual elected representative won’t know he didn’t vote unless Neil writes to him or her. Likewise, in his representative’s eyes Neil not voting may not grant him greater legitimacy in his campaign, but less.

That said, I agree with his cause and I thought I’d say why. Chris posted on something relevant on Saturday:

The law does not ban things – at least not directly – but rather changes incentives. And these changes might not have wholly desirable effects.

On average [1] people commit crimes because they think the outcomes of committing the crime are preferably to the outcomes of not committing the crime.

One of the things that contributes to how expensive a crime is would be the likelihood of getting caught and the severity of the punishment if this happened. Losing the vote is not going to have any impact on how likely it is someone is caught. Neither is the potential withdrawal of this right oging to have anything other than a very marginal effect on this because voting is going to be a very small part of their life. Even here, we are assuming that the person committing the crime is aware they will lose the vote.

Voting is almost irrelevant on the outside world. But one of the purposes of prison is to rehabilitate because 1) doing so is cheaper than releasing someone only to lock them up again in a few years, and 2) rehabilitating is better for everyone involved because it will result in less crime. In the boring, mundane and repetitive life of a prisoner voting offers a connection to the outside world and an opportunity to engage constructively which I think will help rehabilitation, so I support it.

What is offered here is a purely pragmatic reason on why I (and you should) support this aspect of penal reform. I also think that making morality a condition for voting, and criminality a proxy for morality is deeply wrong, but that would be for another post.

[1] I say on average to exclude crimes of passion which are most definitely not rational calculations.


6 thoughts on “Why prisoners should be voting

  1. I’m convinced that the way prisoners are treated as political whipping boys to kick around and demonize is counterproductive. If you want someone to re-offend, what better way to encourage it than by making them feel unwanted and unwelcome in their own community.

  2. The means to an end argument always stirs up different perspectives indicative of an individual’s method of reasoning.

    There is the ‘ends justify the means’ argument.

    There is the ‘ends are determined by the means’ argument.

    And then there is the ‘ends come after the means’ argument.

    Neil advocates the former of the three, which I find impractical and unlikely to be successful.

    The latter of the three appears coherent, but it is morally vacuous.

    Which do you subscribe to?

    1. Morally, I don’t really think you can treat anything solely as a mean, all means are ultimately also ends. You can’t treat killing someone as a mean which could or would be justified by an ultimate end.

      I don’t think the last is the most morally vacuous, quite the opposite if I’m understanding you correctly. Does the end not say, take a principled position and where you end is where your principles have taken you. I like the sound of that.

      When arguing I like to use whichever is most fun to me, there are plenty of arguments out there and I like to try to make a convincing case.

      I could argue about the purpose of prison and name drop Foucault and Discipline and Punish, but I don’t think I’ll convince many people to do what I want that way. Whereas the above, I hope will carry some weight with whoever reads it.

    1. Always ready for constructive engagement!

      OH, I do wonder if anything would convince you. Common law, which I hear you set great score by, doesn’t really have much to say about enfranchisement of the masses, as at least as far as I’m aware.

      I wouldn’t have thought you”d oppose prisoners voting though. Who better to ally with against the state than those most under its cosh?

      How far can the state go in punishing someone? I would have thought you would have opting for something minimal.

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