Should prisoners be allowed to vote? Britain may be out of step with the rest of Europe, but it still balks at allowing those behind bars to cast a ballot.
By Abi Simpson
Surrounded by “Keep Calm” posters, tea drinkers and all things stereotypically British, you wouldn’t know you were in anything but a quaint little café with a great view, sipping Earl Grey tea.
Unless you looked behind you.
The crumbling Victorian structure of Norwich Prison is not easily missed as you approach the popular Café Britannia.
The location isn’t the only thing different: Most of the staff waiting on the mismatched tables are serving prisoners or ex-offenders.
Tim Ansell, 29, was recently released from prison after serving an 8-1/2 year sentence for threatening to kill someone. He is among those who believe prisoners should not be allowed to vote.
The controversial topic of prisoners’ voting rights has been in the spotlight since 2005 when convicted killer John Hirst took the British government to the European Court of Justice and won.
But the United Kingdom remains split down the middle whether a prisoner’s right to vote is a luxury or a liberty.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled four times against Britain.
Ansell was slightly nervous and spoke quietly as we chatted, but he expressed strong feelings on the matter of voting.
“I think it’s just a given understanding that when you’re incarcerated, you will obviously have your civil liberties removed from you, and one of those is the right to vote,” he said.
“It’s just part of the package you receive. If you’re going to let me vote, then why not let me go to the shop? Where are you going to draw the line?”
In February 2015, the European Court of Human Rights ruled for the fourth time that Britain’s blanket ban on the right of prisoners to vote violates the European Convention of Human Rights.
Alex Hewson from the Prison Reform Trust is among those who are hoping to see a change in the law.
“People are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity. The 19th-century punishment of civic death makes no sense in a 21st-century prison system focused on effective rehabilitation,” he said.
“The UK is out of step with other European countries.”
The prison population of Britain has increased from just over 40,000 at the general election of 1992 to close to 90,000 today. The Trust holds that “the UK is out of step with other European countries, as well as many states around the world.”
“Under the UK’s blanket ban, people serving a custodial sentence are unable to vote,” Hewson said. “People held on remand are allowed to vote but often can’t.”
Sean Humber, partner and head of the Human Rights Department at the law firm Leigh Day in London, represented over 500 prisoners in the most recent action taken to the Strasbourg court after the 2010 general election.
“The blanket ban [on voting] remained in place despite our letters to the government, so we decided to take it to Strasbourg.”
“No formal mechanism in place” to enforce the Court’s ruling
Even though the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of the prisoners earlier this year, Humber said there is no formal mechanism requiring the government to enforce the court’s decision.
“Personally I think all prisoners should be allowed to vote,” Humber said, noting that prisoners use the National Health Service, have families who use the education system and sometimes work and pay taxes themselves.
“The idea of a kind of ‘civic death’ when you go into prison is an attitude from the Victorian times,” Humber said.
Frank Owens, 41, author of the “The Little Guide to Prison, a Beginners Guide” and ex-offender, also thinks that prisoners should be allowed the vote but that it is unlikely to happen.
Owens, who said he was prisoner A1443CA, served a year in jail for witness intimidation. He attributes his jailing to his then untreated bipolar disorder.
He believes that anyone who is not a Category A prisoner — those convicted of the most serious crimes — should be allowed to vote because prisoners are residents of the UK.
But the 90,000 people in British jails represent a small percentage of the overall electorate. In Owens’ view, many more than 90,000 voters are opposed to prisoners’ rights, so it is not in politicians’ interests to push the issue.
“It’s a topic that really won’t do anything more than antagonize society,” Owens said.
Abi Simpson is a second-year Multimedia Journalism student at Britain’s Bournemouth University. Alongside her studies, she works as a freelance newsreader at Wessex FM radio and as an Online Sub-Editor for Nerve Media, the university’s radio station and magazine. She looks forward to a career in journalism, hopefully in radio or television.