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Prisoners and the vote: a response to Josh Salisbury

Photo credit – www.peacemakersinternational.org

When people go to prison they forfeit some, if not most, of their social and legal privileges. We all know that prisoners reside at a prison and are not allowed out unless for serious medical reasons or an appointment with the law; prisoners aren’t allowed to walk the streets and pop into their local supermarket to do their rounds; they follow strict bedtimes and are observed daily through the fisheye lenses of cameras on each wall. 

According to Josh Salisbury, writing for York Vision, the right to vote should be an untouchable privilege to which any adult is entitled, prisoners included.

The right to vote in a free and fair election should be an absolute right, which no Government can take away for any reason whatsoever. The right to vote for all adults is far too precious to allow the State to attach conditions to.

Reading from his article it would seem that those whom society deems to be wrongdoers are just as qualified to vote as an ordinary person like Salisbury himself; this seems to permit, for example, British citizens who venture out to the Middle East to fight for ISIS to post their vote back home. Perhaps one of these citizens returns home and is arrested. Will the journalists ask amid his chaotic arrival at the Old Bailey, “Joe! Joe! For whom are you voting in a week?”?

I do not see why prisoners should be granted this opportunity. The right to vote in a democracy is reserved to the citizens of the democracy – for example, we don’t allow the French to vote for a British political party. It’s quite clear to me that by breaking the law, a person surrenders their full citizenship, and so is not deserving of a right to comment on the nature of our government.

Salisbury is wary of my opinion before I even commit it to paper.

Some may argue that loss of the vote is a just punishment for the horrific acts that some prisoners are guilty of – it’s no less than they deserve. But the slogan of “It’s no less than they deserve” is not a rational ground on which to base our public policy. After all, there are many things we may feel prisoners deserve which we do not carry out – torture, for example.

Despite their wrongdoing I am not ignorant of the fact that criminals are humans nonetheless. Regardless of their immoral acts, criminals should be treated with the dignity they deserve as humans. I am thankful that we no longer consider prisoners to be sinners condemned to Hell (those days are long gone, thankfully); I am glad to say that we do not hold our prisoners in the squalid conditions that are described by Shawn Attwood in his book Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail. We should not deprive them of basic amenities such as food and water, shelter, warmth and protection, both from themselves and other prisoners. I think that the majority of people would agree with me that despite their misbehaviour, prisoners are undeserving of torture or exploitation.

Nevertheless, if one commits a crime then one should not expect to be treated in the same way they were before being sent behind bars. This is the nature of punishment, after all. We do wrong and we are punished for it. Why is it unreasonable for us to remove prisoners of some of the privileges that the rest of us enjoy? If we don’t, it’s hardly punishment; prisoners go to jail and serve the time given to them by the judge at their trial as punishment for their crime and to compensate the loss of the person wronged. Sometimes this loss cannot be compensated: a victim of fraud might receive their stolen money, but a victim of murder can never receive life again, nor will his family ever be without the grief. To me the removal of some (but not all!) social privileges is reasonable.

Simply put, a member of society who rebels against it and breaks its laws should not expect to then have a say about how his society is run, not least until he has served his time.


This article was written in response to the article ‘Prisoners deserve the vote’ by Josh Salisbury, published by York Vision on the 28th April 2015. At the time of writing, York Vision has not published it online; later the article was published at the following web address: http://www.yorkvision.co.uk/opinion/prisoners-deserve-the-vote/01/05/2015