Thursday, 18 October 2012

Prisoners and the Vote

"All I tell thee is a faint picture of reality; the filth, the closeness of the rooms, the furious manner and expressions of the women towards each other, and the abandoned wickedness, which everything bespoke are really indescribable." (Elizabeth Fry)

Should Jersey prisoners have the right to vote?

That's not as simple a question as it may seem. I've read a number of comments on the question which take the view that once they have been imprison, they forfeit that right, and it is often implied that prison entails a loss of all the rights of a free citizen (a social contract position?). But it doesn't exactly. Thanks to the work of Elizabeth Fry, and the prison reformers, most people think that prisoners should have some basic rights. They may be stripped of their liberty, but we no longer have prisoners breaking stones, living in filthy conditions.

Elizabeth Fry came into prison reform when she was asked for help by Stephen Grellet, another Quaker:

Once again at a key moment in her life a visiting Quaker minister from America plays an important role. In 1813, Stephen Grellet came to ask for her help. He had visited some prisons, and was horrified by the conditions in the women's prison at Newgate. Hundreds of women and their children were crowded into the prison, many sleeping on the floor without nightclothes or bedding. Elizabeth immediately sent out for warm material and enlisted other women Friends to help make clothing for the infants.

The next day, Elizabeth and her sister-in-law went to Newgate prison. The turnkeys warned them that the women were wild and savage, and they would be in physical danger. However, they went in anyway. On that and two more visits, they brought warm clothing and clean straw for the sick to lie on. Elizabeth also prayed for the prisoners. (1)

The 1835 House of Lords Select Committee produced a report on gaols and houses of correction. Among the recommendations were the following:

- That Inspectors of Prisons be appointed to visit the Prisons from Time to Time, and to report to the Secretary of State.
- That entire Separation, except during the Hours of Labour and of Religious Worship, and Instruction, is absolutely necessary for preventing Contamination, and for securing a proper System of Prison Discipline.
- That Silence be enforced, so as to prevent all Communication between Prisoners both before and after Trial.
- That the Officers of the Prisons shall not be permitted to receive any Portion of the Prisoners Earnings.
- That the Practice in some Prisons, and in certain Cases, of paying Money to the Prisoners in lieu of supplying them either wholly or in part with Food or Fuel, be declared to be illegal.
- That convicted Prisoners be not permitted to receive Visits or Letters from their Friends during the first Six Months of their Imprisonment, unless under peculiar and pressing Circumstances.
- That in Cases where the Punishment of whipping is resorted to it is expedient that it should be defined as regards both the Extent to which it may be carried and the Instruments with which it may be inflicted. (2)

We can see some elements of corrupt practices here with money changing hands between officers and prisoners, but there is still a very harsh regime. Some of these ideas, and some of those from Jeremy Bentham, made their way into the design of Pentonville prison:

In 1842 Pentonville penitentiary was completed and by 1848, fifty-four other prisons had been built on the same plan. The prisons had rows of single cells arranged in tiers and in separate blocks radiating from a central hub like the spokes of a wheel. Pentonville had 520 small cells, each measuring thirteen feet by seven. Each cell had a small window on the outside wall and a door opening on to the narrow landings in the galleries. The cells were well ventilated and had the luxuries of a water-closet, though water-closets were later replaced by the communal, evil-smelling recesses because they were getting blocked constantly and their pipes were used as a means of communication.

The prisoners were forbidden to talk to each other and were stripped of their identity. They had to wear a cap called a 'peak' that covered each man's face when they were together and numbers not names were used. When they took exercise the prisoners walked in silent rows, holding a rope that had knots tied in it at five yard intervals to keep each man apart from the next.

In chapel, which they had to attend every day, they sat in little cubicles, their heads visible to the warder on duty but hidden from each other. Lincoln Prison's chapel is built to the same plan and is the only existing example of this type of chapel left in England. In chapel, the men sang loudly since this was the only time they were allowed to use their voices. They took the opportunity to talk to the man in the next cubicle while everyone else sang the hymns. (3)

Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol depicts conditions inside the prison around 1897, poor food, dirty water, unsanitary lavatory conditions, and a place that is still not too far away from the concentration camps of the last war - not the death camps, but the ones were prisoners were worked to death, and the weakest did not survive. And this was despite the earlier reforms!

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

This too I know - and wise it were
If each could know the same -
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!

The vilest deeds like poison weeds,
Bloom well in prison-air;
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity's machine.

The brackish water that we drink
Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
Wild-eyed, and cries to Time. (4)

Why is it important to consider the Victorian prisons and reforms? I think it is precisely so that we can see what prisoners rights involves, and I think most people are pretty much agreed that even the Victorian reforms did not go far enough. But those, slender though they were, were based on the assumption that prisoners did have certain rights - to food and drink, to their own space, and that prisons should be inspected to ensure that they were being strictly but properly treated, that conditions should be monitored.

No one thinks, however, that enforced silence or hymn singing is a good idea. I think that while some people may say that a good whipping would do the prisoners good, this is largely a rhetorical flourish, and most people, when faced with the reality, would not say that prisoners should be flogged to keep them in line.

Now I'm not saying here at this stage whether prisoners should be able to vote. What I am establishing is that the notion that prisoners forfeit "rights" is a changing one; when we look at the "rights" of criminals who have been imprisoned in the past, they have changed and I think even the most die-hard reactionary would think they have improved since the 1800s. Historically, prisoners have had increasing rights.

As far as the mechanics of it goes, we are fortunate in that Guernsey has probably ironed out any logistical problems because Guernsey prisoners can vote, for example:

At Les Nicolles Prison in Guernsey low-risk prisoners can actually be escorted to the polling stations to vote. Islanders convicted of more serious offences are allowed to vote by post. (5)

Regarding which Parish they should belong too, again this should not be too difficult to resolve. The UK does allow some people in Prison to vote. Civil prisoners sentenced (for non-payment of fines, or contempt of court, for example), and those on remand unsentenced retain the right to vote.

What happens as part of the process is that a declaration of local connection may be made. Among other things the declaration must provide an address for correspondence to be sent to, or an undertaking to collect such correspondence from the electoral registration office. The prisoner must submit the declaration to the registration officer within three months of the date on the declaration and they will be treated as being resident at the address you have given

So if that was extended to cover other prisoners, they would also have a declaration of local connection, which might not be La Moye. If, for
instance, they have a friend or relative who can take correspondence (and that can often be the case), that would be the address for which they were deemed to be resident, and not La Moye prison.

So what about the arguments for prisoners having a vote. The principle in Guernsey was set out by Deputy Mahy:

The Minister for the Home Department in Guernsey, Geoff Mahy, says going to prison in the first place is punishment enough. He said: "We want prisoners to come out of prison having paid for their crime and then be good and active members of our community. And voting for elections and involving oneself in the community is to be encouraged." (5)

But a far more in depth discussion of the situation was made in a paper by Penal Disenfranchisement, by Christopher Bennett, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

He notes that some people receive a prison sentence, and some community service, for the same crimes, and notes:

given that the commission of two identical offences can, for extraneous reasons, lead to imprisonment in one case and not in the other, whether an offender loses the right to vote is not determined solely by the seriousness of the crime.(6)

He also notes that people who are not imprison, who have strong - and perhaps dangerous - political views, are still allowed to vote:

Most patients detained under the Mental Health Act retain their right to vote; and there is no disqualification for expressing, or showing evidence that one has radical or potentially dangerous views.

What this adds up to is that the U.K. has an apparently strongly liberal position that all adults should be presumptively regarded as qualified to participate in the democratic, and to have their voice count equally with those of others in determining the governance of their state.(6)

And he notes how this undermines the argument that prisoners should not be allowed to vote because they are irresponsible, because people who may have very radical views are allowed to vote. Membership of the BNP does not disqualify one from voting.

In the light of this, it seems hard to uphold some of the arguments that have been put forward in favour of prisoner disenfranchisement. The arguments I have in mind are those that claim that disenfranchising prisoners is necessary in order to protect democratic procedures from being corrupted by irresponsible or immoral influences.  For instance, it is sometimes claimed that, through their crime, serious offenders have shown an irresponsible attitude to the law and its values, and to the demands of social cooperation. This is combined with the claim that, for democracy to flourish, citizens have to have a level of commitment to the value of the process, and respect for their fellow deliberators. The conclusion is drawn, then, that those who commit serious offences ought to be disqualified from having the vote because they have shown themselves to be irresponsible. This argument doesn't seem to explain why the U.K. removes the right to vote from prisoners because if this was the motivation then it would also be deemed correct to introduce other restrictions on the franchise, to introduce basic competence tests for voters, and to be far more serious than we currently are about citizenship education.

On the other hand, we might think about a non-criminal case in which someone presents clear evidence that they do not respect the law: for instance, through internet broadcasts, blogs, speeches, etc. Should we also deprive that person of the right to vote? If we have a commitment to freedom of speech then we may say no. In which case we might doubt the validity of the alleged principle that we should remove the right to vote from those we believe to have shown that they will use it unwisely. (Furthermore, voting is not the only form of political activity that prisoners or other allegedly irresponsible citizens might engage in - and certainly not the most powerful in terms of its outcomes. Should offenders - and others - also be banned from other potentially subversive political activity such as letter-writing, campaigning, reading political material? (6)

I'm not going to put here the rest of his excellent analysis, which also discusses the social contract argument and others. The full paper can be read at:

Suffice it to say that it looks at the arguments and their flaws in quite a dispassionate and neutral way, much as one might expect from a philosopher. I strongly advise anyone to thinks that prisoners should not have the vote to see how it addresses the arguments against, and the problems with consistency that arise from that position. Reading the paper has clarified my own mind on the subject, and I do think we need to follow the path taken by our sister Island.


1 comment:

Tom Gruchy said...

Imprisoned or exiled - why should the vote be denied?
20,000 people with Jersey housing and work quals live outside the Island but most do not have a vote here. Why not?
Anybody - whatever nationality - can vote here after a couple of years residence and those from "foreign" places can usually vote back home too.
Jersey does not have a "nationality" so housing and work quals are the nearest standard to work with.
If the 20,000 all voted the impact on an election would be rather more imprtant than the La Moye effect.