In the news: Prisoners to be given the vote

After valiant attempts to quash, overturn or otherwise avoid the European Court of Human Rights’ dictum that Britain must allow prisoners to vote, the Government this week conceded that there is nothing they can do about it. Like it or not, some prisoners will have to be given the right to participate in elections; if they are prevented from doing so, their human rights, apparently, are being abused.

Yet many of them – including John Hirst, who took the case to the ECHR in the first place – are in prison precisely because they abused the human rights of another in the first place.  In Hirst’s case he deprived his landlady of her ‘right’ to life, by means of an axe.  It does not seem an unreasonable application of the ‘eye for eye’ principle to relieve Hirst, temporarily, of his right to vote – his right to participate fully in this aspect of citizenship.

This is one of the places where the language of rights utterly confuses an issue.

Membership of any society – be that a nation or a loyalty-card scheme – comes with benefits and privileges, but these are not cost-free; there are obligations and requirements that must be met in order to be eligible for the benefits.  To get my tenth cup of coffee free at my local coffee shop, I have to first buy nine other cups.  To have free and unrestricted access to the services and processes available to citizens of the UK, I have to obey the laws of the UK, including not killing other citizens!

One of the arguments of prisoners is that while in custody they do not have the ability to lobby for change in the parliamentary process, so the only option available to them to make their voice heard is rioting.  This rather touching faith in the power of the democratic voting system is an incredibly weak argument, though.

Firstly, how many of these prisoners actually voted in the many elections available to them before their incarceration?  Not many, I’m sure – they didn’t want to take advantage of the right to vote then, why are they so keen now?

Secondly, a General Election happens once every five years, with occasional local elections in between, and change takes a very long time to happen even if the party the prisoners want (assuming they’re united on this front) gets into power – are they really going to wait that long for their requests to be heard?

Thirdly, the channels of democracy are not entirely closed to convicted criminals anyway – they are perfectly capable of writing letters to their MPs, and there are plenty of lobbying agencies which will take on their causes, probably with much greater effect than a single vote in an election ever could.

I agree that we should not treat prisoners as sub-human.  It is important that they are provided with food, warmth, shelter and the education and assistance they need to break out of the cycle of deprivation, disenchantment and dysfunction that, in so many cases, led them to crime in the first place.  The reasons it is important, though, are not to do with the purported rights of prisoners, but of their needs and our humanity.

Our natural instinct when someone hurts us – or hurts someone we are in community with – is to retaliate, to make them feel the same pain, to take ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.  The nobler path, however, is to turn the other cheek.  Yes, they need to be removed from the situation so they cannot harm others; yes, they ought to lose, temporarily, some of the privileges and benefits to which they previously had access, as a consequence of their decision to break the social contract; and yes, we need to help them to become fully participative citizens when they return to the community, so they have the tools available to them to resist the slide back into a life of crime; but no, we don’t, in a civilised society, treat them as we think they deserve, or as they have treated others.

All retaliation does is lower us to their level and imply that they do have no alternative.

‘Rights’ are an artificial construct used, in this case, as a manipulative buzz word in order to get one’s desires.  Needs are universal and honourable people meet the needs of others even when it is costly to do so.

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