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Guest Piece

Civic Redemption?

shadow

Published on July 26, 2022 by Edward

I hope these comments on disenfranchisement, or ‘civil death’, will help to encourage a wider public debate on prisoner voting rights and the broader inclusion of people in civic and political life.

The subject of disenfranchisement has been of particular concern to me since my conviction and imprisonment over four years ago, and I appreciate the innovative approach that is being taken to stimulate a debate through creative works.  For nearly twenty years, I was a town councillor and regularly took part in local and national elections, so my exclusion from the democratic process and having my status as a citizen diminished as a result of my conviction, was especially painful for me.  Furthermore, the feeling of being excluded from my community for a period of two and a half years, with all the effects that the lack of respect and recognition had on my self-esteem, as well as the loss of equal political standing with other citizens, has had a detrimental impact on my ‘rehabilitation’ since release due to a persistent sense of exclusion from the life of the wider community.

My experience of both the prison service and the criminal justice system, including time spent on bail for over two years before my conviction, has certainly given me a unique perspective on the question of ‘civil death’ and being kept out of civic and political life.  During my time in prison, the topic of disenfranchisement was often a focus of discussion, particularly with several of my fellow inmates who had also served in elected positions or believed strongly in the importance of enfranchisement as a key part of the rehabilitation process.  None of our views were much different from the majority of contributors to publications such as Inside Time, and reflected many of the sentiments of those campaigning for reform of the system.

As one of those regarded by the present Justice Secretary as ‘beyond redemption’,* and therefore is finding it much harder to secure employment and reintegrate back into the community than many other ex-offenders, I believe it is even more important that the voices of people with similar lived experience are heard and encouraged to add to discussions about disenfranchisement, prisons and the criminal justice system within our society.  How are any of us expected to make new lives for ourselves outside prison and contribute positively as responsible citizens, if the State starts out by removing our civic rights and excluding us from a key aspect of community life?  I firmly believe in universal suffrage, which has been hard-fought for over the centuries, and can see no reason why this right is withdrawn from citizens simply because they are sent to prison.  The present arrangement in the United Kingdom is clearly unsustainable, as it violates not only every tenet of democracy, but also perpetuates an archaic system of criminal justice which keeps punishing people long after their conviction.  In many respects, it puts me in mind of the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the British Empire, with England seen by reformers such as John Bright as ‘the mother of parliaments,’ yet at the same time denying democratic freedoms to many of those subject to British colonial rule overseas.  Similarly, our current elected representatives perpetuate a system which strips people of many of their rights and responsibilities as active citizens, whilst at every turn extolling the virtues of living in a supposedly free, liberal democracy.  We were often told in prison that the judgement handed down by the court was our punishment, and serving a prison sentence was the first part of our ‘rehabilitation’.  Yet the State perpetuates our punishment, and in fact worsens it, by removing our right to vote and turning us into non-citizens without responsibilities, thereby preventing many of us from being able to contribute in any meaningful way to the government of our country.

What are my thoughts about the future and whether there can be any resolution to this sorry state of affairs?  Sadly I am pessimistic about any reversal in the current position on disenfranchisement, despite positive changes in some areas to move away from an excessively punitive model towards a more enlightened and inclusive stance which recognises the fundamental human rights of active citizens.  Sadly, the reluctance of Westminster politicians to even contemplate any voting reform begs another question as to why there is such little interest in restoring civic dignity to prisoners and to see that one of the best ways of reintegrating prisoners back into society is not to exclude them from the democratic process in the first place.  Perhaps MPs fear that if prisoners are given the vote then they might need to work harder to secure their support, or prisoners’ votes might just sway the results one way or the other in some of their marginal constituencies.  Alternatively, our elected representatives might be apprehensive about resolving the voting rights issue as it may expose the present arrangement to unpalatable public scrutiny as it rises up the political agenda, along with overdue reforms of the courts, police and the prison service.  Many MPs, I am certain, dread vilification by political and social commentators, particularly in several of our newer right-wing media outlets, if they even dare to mention the possibility of reform.  Either way, the unwillingness of our national politicians to contemplate voting rights reform illustrates how little interest there is in tackling the massive, expensive problem of reoffending rates or creating a criminal justice system fit for a 21stcentury democracy.  For me, the enfranchisement of prisoners would be the first important step on the road to reforming a system which is an affront in a truly democratic society, as it would provide those serving prison sentences with another vital incentive to remain part of their home communities and to take responsibility for turning their lives around after release.

* Interview in The Daily Telegraph, 5 February 2022.

What do you think about voting rights for prisoners? Go to the poll and share your opinion.

Guest Piece

It is an Old Story by now ... or is it?

Published on June 9, 2022 by Bethany Schmidt

Check out this blog post I wrote for Unlock! The piece draws attention to recent enfranchisement reforms in Scotland and Wales, and considers public attitudes toward prisoner voting rights. 

Unlock is a UK-based charity that supports and advocates for people with criminal records to be able to move on positively in their lives. Their website is full of useful tips, guidance, and resources for professionals and those with lived experience of the criminal justice system. 

What do you think about voting rights for prisoners? Go to the poll and share your opinion.

a global view

international differences in prisoner disenfranchisement

Published on May 14, 2022 by Bethany Schmidt

What do prisoner voting rights look like in other countries? International disenfranchisement policies present a complex and highly varied picture. Chris Uggen and his colleagues (2009) examined differences in how countries exclude or include prisoners and former prisoners in the electorate. Their primary findings indicate that the simple presence of democratic governance does not guarantee that prisoners will be granted voting rights – like in the case of the United States or United Kingdom, for example. Their analysis suggests that economic development, as well as political development, is closely linked to the enfranchisement of prisoners. The map below is a visual representation of Uggen et al’s survey of international differences. The data, as you can see, is incomplete and now over a decade old – some legislation has changed since this study. Nonetheless, this offers an informative illustration that highlights how enfranchisement practices across the globe are not necessarily straightforward or predictable.

Map source: Uggen et al (2009: 62)

Further to the Uggen study, I have cobbled together a more detailed and updated list of countries that offer some prisoner voting rights. It is clear there is little uniformity when comparing regulatory legislation versus judicial discretion, or in how disenfranchisement becomes related to the offence. For some nations, like Germany, Norway, and Portugal – only very specific ‘political’ crimes that target the state or democratic order would result in a ban from voting. In other countries, like Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania, most prisoners remain enfranchised unless otherwise decided by a judge. This is similar to France, where disenfranchisement is an additional penalty to be imposed as part of the sentence only when it is viewed as proportionate to the offence.

International prisoner voting rights

Little uniformity, some judicial discretion, and sometimes related to the offence*

Albania – all prisoners

Bosnia – all prisoners (unless war crimes)

Bulgaria – up to judge

Canada – all

Croatia – all

Cyprus – most + judge

Czech Rep. – all

Denmark – all

Finland – all

France – offence related

Germany – offence related

Greece – some bans

Iceland – offence related

Ireland – all

Israel – all

Kenya – all

Latvia – all

Lithuania – all

Malta – sentence > 1yr

Macedonia – all

Montenegro – all

Netherlands – up to judge

Norway – offence related

Pakistan – all

Poland – up to judge

Portugal – offence related

Romania – most + judge

Serbia – all

Slovakia – all

South Africa – all

South Sudan – all

Spain – all

Sweden – all

Switzerland – all

Ukraine – all

These differences are not insignificant. It is evident that several countries explicitly use disenfranchisement as punishment. Ewald and Rottinghaus (2009: 12) point out that “this has important implications for how and on whom the sanction is imposed”. They go on to note that because prisoners retain the right to vote in many countries, this suggests “that in those nations, disenfranchisement is not seen as an efficacious way to accomplish either punitive or regulatory purposes”. This begs the perennial question: what exactly is accomplished when prisoners are barred from voting?

In recent years, some countries have begun to think differently about the status of prisoners and how that status relates to state-building or rebuilding and shaping their nation’s future. Two notable cases are Kenya and South Sudan, where prisoners were given the right to vote in special elections. It appears that some of the motivation and acceptance for opening up the debate has been tethered to momentous referendums. In Kenya, prisoners were first enfranchised in order to participate in their 2010 referendum to approve a new constitution and in South Sudan prisoners first gained the right to vote to determine whether the region should remain a part of Sudan or become independent in 2011 (this is similar to what occurred in Scotland, though with less success). 

Being excluded from voting, as one prisoner explained to me, “is not just about voting, is it? It’s about not belonging – about society rejecting you”. This is acutely felt in the United States, which has some of the most severe, exclusionary, and expansive disenfranchisement policies in the world. The US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In most countries, voting rights are restored once a person is released from prison. In the US, however, a felony conviction can result in extended disenfranchisement even after release and sometimes permanently for life. Voting policies vary considerably by state. Only Maine and Vermont allow all prisoners to vote.

There are numerous and serious consequences associated with such restrictive practices. Disenfranchisement has a disproportionate impact on communities of colour. According to Chung (2021: 2), “Black Americans of voting age are nearly four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, with one of every 16 Black adults disenfranchised nationally”. Governance structures are likely to become less representative as more people are excluded or discouraged from participating – elections can therefore become skewed due to the absence of some voices. This really matters when local decisions are made about resource allocation, schools, housing, or business issues. Feeling unrepresented or misrepresented tends to increase citizen apathy and withdrawal from wider political processes.

This discussion raises several critical questions:

  • How do we make sense of such varied international differences? Are they arbitrary or meaningful differences?
  • Could disenfranchisement be related to levels of inequality? Might disenfranchisement perpetuate inequality?
  • What does prisoner disenfranchisement achieve?
  • Is political disenfranchisement a reasonable or proportionate extension of the deprivation of liberty?
  • Do countries with more inclusive enfranchisement policies have better outcomes (like lower reoffending rates)?

What do you think about voting rights for prisoners? Go to the poll and share your opinion.

References

  • Chung, J. (2021) Voting Rights in the Era of Mass Incarceration: A Primer.
  • Ewald, A.C. and Rottinghaus, B. (eds.) (2009) Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Uggen, C., Van Brakle, M. and McLaughlin, H. (2009) ‘Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement’, in A.C. Ewald and B. Rottinghaus (eds.) Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective (pp. 59-75). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • For more information on prisoner voting rights in the US, refer to The Sentencing Project.

* Disclaimer: This was a well-intentioned effort to gather information not easily obtained. I have done my best to crosscheck these details. However, I admit that this is a simplified portrayal of complex legislation and may be outdated or not wholly accurate. Let me know if you have additional material related to your country.

Guest Piece

Civic Redemption?

shadow

Published on July 26, 2022 by Edward

I hope these comments on disenfranchisement, or ‘civil death’, will help to encourage a wider public debate on prisoner voting rights and the broader inclusion of people in civic and political life.

The subject of disenfranchisement has been of particular concern to me since my conviction and imprisonment over four years ago, and I appreciate the innovative approach that is being taken to stimulate a debate through creative works.  For nearly twenty years, I was a town councillor and regularly took part in local and national elections, so my exclusion from the democratic process and having my status as a citizen diminished as a result of my conviction, was especially painful for me.  Furthermore, the feeling of being excluded from my community for a period of two and a half years, with all the effects that the lack of respect and recognition had on my self-esteem, as well as the loss of equal political standing with other citizens, has had a detrimental impact on my ‘rehabilitation’ since release due to a persistent sense of exclusion from the life of the wider community. 

My experience of both the prison service and the criminal justice system, including time spent on bail for over two years before my conviction, has certainly given me a unique perspective on the question of ‘civil death’ and being kept out of civic and political life.  During my time in prison, the topic of disenfranchisement was often a focus of discussion, particularly with several of my fellow inmates who had also served in elected positions or believed strongly in the importance of enfranchisement as a key part of the rehabilitation process.  None of our views were much different from the majority of contributors to publications such as Inside Time, and reflected many of the sentiments of those campaigning for reform of the system.

As one of those regarded by the present Justice Secretary as ‘beyond redemption’,* and therefore is finding it much harder to secure employment and reintegrate back into the community than many other ex-offenders, I believe it is even more important that the voices of people with similar lived experience are heard and encouraged to add to discussions about disenfranchisement, prisons and the criminal justice system within our society.  How are any of us expected to make new lives for ourselves outside prison and contribute positively as responsible citizens, if the State starts out by removing our civic rights and excluding us from a key aspect of community life?  I firmly believe in universal suffrage, which has been hard-fought for over the centuries, and can see no reason why this right is withdrawn from citizens simply because they are sent to prison.  The present arrangement in the United Kingdom is clearly unsustainable, as it violates not only every tenet of democracy, but also perpetuates an archaic system of criminal justice which keeps punishing people long after their conviction.  In many respects, it puts me in mind of the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the British Empire, with England seen by reformers such as John Bright as ‘the mother of parliaments,’ yet at the same time denying democratic freedoms to many of those subject to British colonial rule overseas.  Similarly, our current elected representatives perpetuate a system which strips people of many of their rights and responsibilities as active citizens, whilst at every turn extolling the virtues of living in a supposedly free, liberal democracy.  We were often told in prison that the judgement handed down by the court was our punishment, and serving a prison sentence was the first part of our ‘rehabilitation’.  Yet the State perpetuates our punishment, and in fact worsens it, by removing our right to vote and turning us into non-citizens without responsibilities, thereby preventing many of us from being able to contribute in any meaningful way to the government of our country.

What are my thoughts about the future and whether there can be any resolution to this sorry state of affairs?  Sadly I am pessimistic about any reversal in the current position on disenfranchisement, despite positive changes in some areas to move away from an excessively punitive model towards a more enlightened and inclusive stance which recognises the fundamental human rights of active citizens.  Sadly, the reluctance of Westminster politicians to even contemplate any voting reform begs another question as to why there is such little interest in restoring civic dignity to prisoners and to see that one of the best ways of reintegrating prisoners back into society is not to exclude them from the democratic process in the first place.  Perhaps MPs fear that if prisoners are given the vote then they might need to work harder to secure their support, or prisoners’ votes might just sway the results one way or the other in some of their marginal constituencies.  Alternatively, our elected representatives might be apprehensive about resolving the voting rights issue as it may expose the present arrangement to unpalatable public scrutiny as it rises up the political agenda, along with overdue reforms of the courts, police and the prison service.  Many MPs, I am certain, dread vilification by political and social commentators, particularly in several of our newer right-wing media outlets, if they even dare to mention the possibility of reform.  Either way, the unwillingness of our national politicians to contemplate voting rights reform illustrates how little interest there is in tackling the massive, expensive problem of reoffending rates or creating a criminal justice system fit for a 21st century democracy.  For me, the enfranchisement of prisoners would be the first important step on the road to reforming a system which is an affront in a truly democratic society, as it would provide those serving prison sentences with another vital incentive to remain part of their home communities and to take responsibility for turning their lives around after release.

* Interview in The Daily Telegraph, 5 February 2022.

Guest Piece

It is an old story by now... or is it?

Published on June 9, 2022 by Bethany Schmidt

Check out this blog post I wrote for Unlock! The piece draws attention to recent enfranchisement reforms in Scotland and Wales, and considers public attitudes toward prisoner voting rights. 

Unlock is a UK-based charity that supports and advocates for people with criminal records to be able to move on positively in their lives. Their website is full of useful tips, guidance, and resources for professionals and those with lived experience of the criminal justice system. 

a global view

international differences in prisoner disenfranchisement

Published on May 14, 2022 by Bethany Schmidt

What do prisoner voting rights look like in other countries? International dis/enfranchisement policies present a complex and highly varied picture. Chris Uggen and his colleagues (2009) examined differences in how countries exclude or include prisoners and former prisoners in the electorate. Their primary findings indicate that the simple presence of democratic governance does not guarantee that prisoners will be granted voting rights – like in the case of the United States or United Kingdom, for example. Their analysis suggests that economic development, as well as political development, is closely linked to the enfranchisement of prisoners. The map below is a visual representation of Uggen et al’s survey of international differences. The data, as you can see, is incomplete and now over a decade old – some legislation has changed since this study. Nonetheless, this offers an informative illustration that highlights how enfranchisement practices across the globe are not straightforward or predictable.

Map source: Uggen et al (2009: 62)

Further to the Uggen study, I have cobbled together a more detailed and updated list of countries that offer some prisoner voting rights. It is clear there is little uniformity when comparing regulatory legislation versus judicial discretion, or in how disenfranchisement becomes related to the offence. For some nations, like Germany, Norway, and Portugal – only very specific ‘political’ crimes that target the state or democratic order would result in a ban from voting. In other countries, like Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania, most prisoners remain enfranchised unless otherwise decided by a judge. This is similar to France, where disenfranchisement is an additional penalty to be imposed as part of the sentence only when it is viewed as proportionate to the offence.

A Sampling of International prisoner voting rights

Little uniformity, some judicial discretion, and sometimes related to the offence*

Albania – all prisoners

Bosnia – all prisoners (unless war crimes)

Bulgaria – up to judge

Canada – all

Croatia – all

Cyprus – most + judge

Czech Rep. – all

Denmark – all

Finland – all

France – offence related

Germany – offence related

Greece – some bans

Iceland – offence related

Ireland – all

Israel – all

Kenya – all

Latvia – all

Lithuania – all

Malta – sentence > 1yr

Macedonia – all

Montenegro – all

Netherlands – up to judge

Norway – offence related

Pakistan – all

Poland – up to judge

Portugal – offence related

Romania – most + judge

Serbia – all

Slovakia – all

South Africa – all

South Sudan – all

Spain – all

Sweden – all

Switzerland – all

Ukraine – all

These differences are not insignificant. It is evident that several countries explicitly use disenfranchisement as punishment. Ewald and Rottinghaus (2009: 12) point out that “this has important implications for how and on whom the sanction is imposed”. They go on to note that because prisoners retain the right to vote in many countries, this suggests “that in those nations, disenfranchisement is not seen as an efficacious way to accomplish either punitive or regulatory purposes”. This begs the perennial question: what exactly is accomplished when prisoners are barred from voting?

In recent years, some countries have begun to think differently about the status of prisoners and how that status relates to state-building or rebuilding and shaping their nation’s future. Two notable cases are Kenya and South Sudan, where prisoners were given the right to vote in special elections. It appears that some of the motivation and acceptance for opening up the debate has been tethered to momentous referendums. In Kenya, prisoners were first enfranchised in order to participate in their 2010 referendum to approve a new constitution and in South Sudan prisoners first gained the right to vote to determine whether the region should remain a part of Sudan or become independent in 2011 (this is similar to what occurred in Scotland, though with less success). 

Being excluded from voting, as one prisoner explained to me, “is not just about voting, is it? It’s about not belonging – about society rejecting you”. This is acutely felt in the United States, which has some of the most severe, exclusionary, and expansive disenfranchisement policies in the world. The US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In most countries, voting rights are restored once a person is released from prison. In the US, however, a felony conviction can result in extended disenfranchisement even after release and sometimes permanently for life. Voting policies vary considerably by state. Only Maine and Vermont allow all prisoners to vote.

There are numerous and serious consequences associated with such restrictive practices. Disenfranchisement has a disproportionate impact on communities of colour. According to Chung (2021: 2), “Black Americans of voting age are nearly four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, with one of every 16 Black adults disenfranchised nationally”. Governance structures are likely to become less representative as more people are excluded or discouraged from participating – elections can therefore become skewed due to the absence of some voices. This really matters when local decisions are made about resource allocation, schools, housing, welfare, or economic issues. Feeling unrepresented or misrepresented tends to increase citizen apathy and withdrawal from wider political processes. 

This discussion raises several critical questions:

How do we make sense of such varied international differences? Are they arbitrary or meaningful differences?

Could disenfranchisement be related to levels of inequality? Might disenfranchisement perpetuate inequality?

What does prisoner disenfranchisement achieve?

Is political disenfranchisement a reasonable or proportionate extension of the deprivation of liberty?

Do countries with more inclusive enfranchisement policies have better outcomes (like lower reoffending rates)?

What do you think about voting rights for prisoners? Go to the poll and share your opinion.

References

  • Chung, J. (2021) Voting Rights in the Era of Mass Incarceration: A Primer.
  • Ewald, A.C. and Rottinghaus, B. (eds.) (2009) Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Uggen, C., Van Brakle, M. and McLaughlin, H. (2009) ‘Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement’, in A.C. Ewald and B. Rottinghaus (eds.) Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective (pp. 59-75). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • For more information on prisoner voting rights in the US, refer to The Sentencing Project.

* Disclaimer: This was a well-intentioned effort to gather information not easily obtained. I have done my best to cross-check these details. However, I admit that this is a simplified portrayal of complex legislation and may be outdated or not wholly accurate. Let me know if you have additional material related to your country.