The Prisoner Dilemma

It is an issue that has been brewing for almost a decade now, since prisoner John Hirst first had his case dismissed by Britain’s High Court in April 2001, and, because in November 2010 the Council of Europe gave Britain six months to bring themselves into alignment with the judgements of the Strasbourg Courts, the question is now on everybody’s lips: Should prisoners be allowed to vote?

Back in March 2004, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that a blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners, irrespective of crime or sentence, was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. By the time of the 2010 elections, the British government had failed to materially respond to these rulings, but now Europe has mounted pressure to change – forcing the new Conservative government to tread carefully the line of avoiding in the future paying out tens of millions of pounds in compensation to prisoners while still keeping sweet the Conservative supporters who want to see Europe’s power over policy in Britain lessened.

The debate rumbles on. On the one side there are those who believe that those who break the law are unfit to have a say in how it is constructed – the government’s original defence put to the European courts was that disenfranchisement was a measure taken to enhance civil responsibility and respect for the law. Other countries that also disallow all prisoners from voting are Russia, Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg and Romania. On the other side there are those who make the point that the function of imprisonment is to restrict liberties, not rights. If anything, denying prisoners is to undermine the democratic process, they argue, not to enhance it. The ruling of the European court reflects this opinion, and the nations that are in alignment with have implemented it in various ways.The Republic of Ireland lifted its ban in 2006 and has since allowed prisoners to vote by post in the constituency where they would normally live; Germany and Austria now also allow all prisoners to vote except for those who have committed offenses relating to the voting system itself; Cyprus and Slovakia have no official ban on prisoners voting, but, perhaps disingenuously, make no provisions for prisoners to actually cast their vote; and many countries, such as Poland, Malta, Greece and Italy, give some prisoners the right but prohibit others whose crimes are deemed to be more serious.

A recent, interesting angle on the debate comes from Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, who this week said that Britain weakens its position in admonishing the regimes currently contravening human rights on a large scale, such as the situation in Libya, when the British government have been dragging their feet in their own human rights case. A whole set of interesting perspectives comes from inmates themselves, as part of a series written by Alan Smith for the Guardian where prisoners are asked to discuss philosophical issues. A recurring theme in the prisoner perspective is how denying a person the right to vote is to lessen them somehow, perhaps even to deprive them of a constitutive element of being a full person:

“…They’re saying, ‘You’re not like us, you’re less than us, all of you’.”

“When is a human being not a human being?”

“If I get released on election day, do I suddenly become fully human again, magically, so that I’m worthy to vote?”

These final questions should strike a chord with philosophers, for aside from the considerations in political philosophy that this debate obviously mirrors, there is a lingering question of what exactly it is that we deprive people of when we deny them such rights. Do we deprive them of the use of their rational capacity to make political contributions, or do we deprive them of the very capacity itself?

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