David Cameron reputedly vowed that prisoners “will be allowed to vote over my dead body”. Don’t give us any ideas Dave… We know that the current blanket ban has been judged unlawful by The European Court of Human Rights, and we presumably don’t want to break the law. I mean, that could land us all in the collective slammer, without the right to vote. Not a clever idea, given that the current UK voter turnout is already among the lowest in Western Europe.
The question is far from straightforward anyway. You can break the law and not go to prison for example. You still pay taxes when you’re in prison and, as we all know, “No Taxation Without Representation” can bring about revolutions.
Winston Churchill said: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky also argued that a society can be judged by the way that it treats its prisoners, he said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
So what would Borgen do? Well, nothing actually, as Danish prisoners have enjoyed the unfettered right to vote since the 1930s. And that’s despite the fact that our Danish cousins only incarcerate really REALLY naughty boys and girls.
“A punishable offence shall not involve the suspension of civil rights, including the right to carry on business under an ordinary license or a maritime license.” These are the words of chapter 9, section 78, subsection 1 of the Danish Criminal Code, and this is where the story of prisoners’ right to vote in Denmark begins. Before the 1930’s, the right to vote could be revoked for certain crimes. Denmark’s policy is consistent with that of its Scandinavian neighbours – in Finland and Sweden, all prisoners retain the right to vote, while disenfranchisement in Norway is extremely rare.
The general European picture is that 18 countries allow all prisoners to vote – including Germany, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands – there are another 12 where prisoners’ rights are restricted in some way, including Austria, France and Italy. In 13 countries, including Ireland and Belgium, certain time limits apply.
In theory, therefore, it is possible for the British government to adopt a series of measures that would ban many, if not all, prisoners from voting as long as there was a legally consistent approach and the ban was not a blanket one.
Borgen’s attitude is that a prison sentence means that you’re deprived of your liberty. You become subject to the rules of the prison system. Even open prisons with the most liberal conditions impose certain restrictions on a prisoner’s freedom of movement.
It’s this very deprivation of freedom which signifies the punishment under the Danish judicial system. Prisoners don’t lose their common citizens’ rights, they can vote and exercise their freedom of speech. Would those who object to voting rights for prisoners also take away their freedom of speech, I wonder?
The Danish prison and probation service maintains that control of prisoners go hand in hand with efforts to prepare them for life outside prison, once they’ve served their sentence.
That means that conditions inside prison as far as possible mirror conditions in the community outside, within the limits that the safety and security of the surrounding community dictate.
Prisoners should also, as far as possible, maintain contact with their community and their families so they have someone to join when they’re released.
A trawl through Danish online chat rooms similarly reveals attitudes a million miles from the common British view of the matter. Here’s just one example: “A criminal would never think that s/he was attacking the community laws. Typically, a criminal commits crime out of sheer need or lack of other options…”
This whole debate about voting rights for prisoners is merely an incredibly sad symptom of a much bigger and uglier dysfunction in our community.
Let’s start tackling that and the rest will take care of itself.