Wednesday, May 23, 2012

freedom to, freedom from, freedom for

Should prisoners be denied the right to vote?
No.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights yesterday has been, predictably, rounded upon by the awkward squads. The Daily Mail has called the decision "contemptuous". I can't bring myself to check what the Express thinks, it's like not wanting to open a bank statement. There can only be bad things in there.

I'm glad for the Mail and Express having apoplectic fits of fury over prisoner voting rights, because it ticks all their boxes and therefore has to be right. Dealing with their opposition is similar to arguing with the pub drunk - there's all the relevant points there, just not necessarily in the right order. As with many of those subjects which rile and vex, the tabloids have whipped up anger on their own fears, rather than the evidence. It's as though a student has thrown their laptop across the bedroom because the essay is over a word limit.

The UK stands almost alone in its ban on prisoner voting rights, a view that puts us far lower down the list of respectable developed democracies than the tabloids would like.  That a convicted criminal receives extra "time off" from voting doesn't differentiate them from the rest of the population for 11 months out of 12, and with turnout in the general population this year at around 30%, it's not as though whatever logic existed beforehand stands up today.

Whatever general principle existed at the core of the current policy doesn't make sense. How does giving prisoners an "additional extra" punishment work? Many criminals request - and are not barred from receiving in any case - help or communication with Members of Parliament. There have been a number of high profile cases of MPs helping release convicted criminals who were victims of miscarriages of justice. There is "justice" and there is "revenge" - denying criminals the right to vote is very much the latter - it does not stand up to scrutiny. Who wins because a convicted thief can't vote for their local councillor, or a rioter was unable to vote in the AV referendum?

Prisoners are already considerably de-humanised by society - we are told that all those convicted  of a crime, from stealing a bottle of water to raping an under-age child - must be considered the same kind of evil. Jailed for sending a drunken tweet or beating up a pensioner? All the ban on voting does is feed resentment and bitterness amongst criminals, setting them along a spiral against rehabilitation. Society is at its best when it's trying to take people away from criminal behaviour. This ancient pettiness is not society at its best.

The issue has very little about prisoner rights if you read the tabloids. There's no concern in there about the levels of illiteracy, drug habits, access to employment opportunities. We're forced to read the parallel rants, barely connected, against "Europe", in favour of David Cameron "doing a Thatcher" against Brussels and all the usual, tedious British nationalism/EU-bashing. It's the closest thing the tabloids have to showing signs of Internet trolling - the merest mention of a European decision sends staff to the keyboards in frenzied fury.

There's people out there right now who have not stolen so much as an office stapler, but they can exercise their right to vote whilst not knowing one policy from another. There's former prisoners living somewhere near your house who postal voted two weeks ago, and next door to you is a cannabis smoker who hasn't voted for anyone in twenty years. Democracy is not just the right to slam your front door in the face of a leaflet-dropper two weeks before polling day; it's about making  difficult choices for the right reasons. If we can get to a stronger, more liberal, more humane situation for convicted prisoners, it should be worth the long stretch of anti-European bile we're about to drown in.