Denied the Vote: Prisoners and ‘Civic Death’

In the last few days, Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain will continue to defy a European Court ruling saying prisoners must be given the right to vote.  It comes after Attorney General Dominic Grieve warned Britain’s reputation would be damaged if it did not follow the European Court ruling.  Most coalition MPs and Labour oppose giving prisoners the vote.  An extended BBC report can be found here.

UK-based organisations, such as UNLOCK, the National Association of Ex-Offenders, and the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) contest the electoral ban on sentenced prisoners voting, arguing that a reform of the law is necessary for several reasons, including the claim that a ban infringes basic human rights that people have died to protect, that it bears no relation to the causes of crime, and can cause minority ethnic groups to be disenfranchised (in particular black men).  Further to this “the notion of civic death for sentenced prisoners isolates still further those who are already on the margins of society and encourages them to be seen as alien to the communities to which they will return on release” (UNLOCK, 2004, p. 1; see also Slapper 2011).  By removing the right to vote, we signal to serving prisoners that, at least for the duration of their sentence, they are dead to society.

Bolstering such arguments are reports that disenfranchisement during incarceration has contributed to a spiral of decline of prisoners having little or no expectation to perform obligations, such as active parenthood or paying attention to financial burdens.  Harman et al. (2007), for example, use evidence sourced from wives of incarcerated prisoners who are affronted and dismayed at the degree of free time and relaxation that their male partners enjoy when in prison, at precisely the time when they are having to manage both the family finances and the children themselves.  Furthermore, May and Woods (2005) demonstrate that many American prisoners would prefer to go to prison than do community service, house arrest or ‘boot camp’ when offered the choice.

American Judge Dennis Challeen (1986, p. 37-39) illustrated a glaring paradox in highlighting that, “We … want people to be responsible, so we take away all responsibility”.  It will be interesting to pay attention to this debate as it continues to develop.


HARMAN, J.J., SMITH, V.E. & EGAN, L.C. (2007) The Impact of Incarceration On Intimate Relationships, Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34 (6), pp. 794-815.

MAY, D.C. & WOOD, P. B. (2005) What Influences Offenders’ Willingness to Serve Alternative Sanctions?, The Prison Journal, 85 (2), pp. 145-167.

CHALLEEN, D. (1986) Making it right: a common sense approach to criminal justice Melius & Peterson, Aberdeen, S.D.

SLAPPER, G (2011) Opinion: The Ballot Box and the Jail Cell,. The Journal of Criminal Law 75 1-3.

UNLOCK (2004) Barred From Voting: The right to vote for sentenced prisoners


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