Whatever your thoughts on the European Court of Human Rights’ warning to the government that it must permit prisoner voting or face penalties, the question of prisoner voting itself is an interesting one. To be honest, I am of two minds on the matter. Is it legitimate for a group to form a compact that provides certain rights and revokes them as a form of punishment? Absolutely; a consenting adult can enter into agreements that restrict their range of action and otherwise bind them. We could justly punish theft with drawing and quartering if we all agreed to it in advance. The denial of the right to vote is a longstanding policy, and someone who chooses to hold up a gas station, say, should know this.
On the other hand, no one ever did enter into such an agreement with the British government, either to be governed by its laws or to be punished upon breaching them. At the point where a “social contract” is imposed upon us, one of the few means of recourse that we have is voting. Prisoners, whose liberties are already restricted and who generally lack political capital, ought be able to participate in the democratic process. There also appears to be very little purpose to restricting the right to vote: no one particularly enjoys voting – denial of conjugal visits probably stings a bit more for the average convict – and jail time is a more powerful deterrent.
The conversation will doubtless continue in Westminster. MPs voted in February, 234 to 22, to maintain the blanket ban. Though he was avowedly against prisoners getting the right to vote, the Prime Minister has said, “we are going to have to sort this out one way or the other.” It will be interesting to see how it all works out; British prisoners may be enfranchised despite the best efforts of the government to prevent same.