By Abi Simpson
A prisoners right to vote: liberty or luxury? This is a question which seems to have split the country down the middle.
Surrounded by ‘keep calm’ posters, tea drinkers and all things stereotypically British you wouldn’t know you were in anything but a normal quaint little café, with a great view sipping earl grey, unless you looked behind you.
The crumbling Victorian structure of HMP Norwich is not something that can be easily missed upon approach to this popular establishment, even with the stunning panoramic views over the whole of Norwich.
The location isn’t the only thing slightly different about Café Britannia, as most of the staff waiting on the mismatched tables are serving prisoners or ex-offenders.
Tim Ansell, a 29 year old ex-offender is one of them. He has recently been released from prison having served an 8 ½ year sentence for threatening to kill someone. Ansell was issued with an Indeterminate sentence for the Protection of the Public (IPP) in 2006.
The controversial topic of whether prisoners should be allowed to vote has been in the spotlight since 2005 when convicted killer John Hirst took the UK to the European Court of Human Rights over the issue and won.
The subject is one that has split the country pretty much down the middle. Ansell is among those who believe prisoners should not be allowed to vote.
Looking slightly nervous, he was quiet and almost mousy, tall with dark eyes he appeared to have strong feelings about what he thought the rights of prisoners should be.
Ansell said: “I think it’s just a given understanding that when you’re incarcerated you will obviously have your civil liberties removed from you and one of those is the right to vote.”
“It’s just part of the package you receive, I don’t think you should be able to vote purely because you know you committed a crime and the laws of the land state that you may face a penalty that’s appropriate” such as a custodial sentence.
He argued that: “If you’re going to let me vote then why not let me go to the shop, you know where are you going to draw the line?”
In February 2015, the European Court of Human Rights ruled for the fourth time against the UK’s blanket ban on the right of prisoners to vote and with the recent election many are hoping to see a change in the law.
Alex Hewson from the Prison Reform Trust disagrees with Ansell saying prisoners should be allowed to vote.
He argues that: “People are sent to prison to lose their liberty; not their identity. The 19th Century punishment of civic death makes no sense in a 21st Century prison system focussed on effective rehabilitation.”
Hewson said: “Nearly 65 000 UK citizens were denied the vote in last week’s general election.”
He said: “Under the UK’s blanket ban, declared unlawful by the European Court over a decade ago, people serving a custodial sentence are unable to vote. People held on remand are allowed to vote but often can’t.”
The Prison Reform Trust feels that: “The UK is out of step with other European countries, as well as many states around the world.”
The European Court of Human Rights have told the UK government on 4 separate occasions that the current laws on prisoners’ rights to vote are in breach of Article 3 of the First Protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights, which says everyone is entitled to free and fair elections.
Sean Humber, Partner and Head of the Human Rights Department at the law firm Leigh Day in London, represented over 500 prisoners in the most recent action taken to Strasbourg.
Humber specialises in prison law and has represented prisoners in a variety of matters for the last 15 years.
He said, this last action was first brought shortly after the 2010 general election and has been “chuntering back and forth for the last few years.”
“The blanket ban remained in place despite our letters to the government, so we decided to take it to Strasbourg.”
Even though the ECHR ruled in favour of the prisoners earlier this year, a “flaw of the system is that it is left to the government to sort out the matter once they’ve found to be in breach” as there is no “formal mechanism in place to enforce it” meaning that the UK government don’t actually have to change the law if they don’t want to.
Humber said: “Personally I think all prisoners should be allowed to vote, they still remain a part of society, they use the NHS, they have families that use the education system, some of them work and even pay taxes” whilst in prison.
“It seems strange that they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. The idea of a kind of ‘civic death’ when you go into prison is an attitude from the Victorian times.”
Since the rulings in Strasbourg there have been suggestions that maybe some prisoners and not others should be allowed to vote, as it is only the ‘blanket ban’ that has been found to be in breach.
Humber argued that some governments aren’t prepared to go as far as to allow all prisoners to vote and so maybe those with shorter sentences or those coming to the end of their terms should be awarded the vote.
Humber is not alone in his belief that prisoners should be allowed to vote.
Frank Owens, 41, author of the ‘The Little Guide to Prison, a Beginners Guide’ and ex-offender also thinks that prisoners should be allowed the vote, but thinks this is unlikely to happen.
Owens, also known as prisoner A1443CA, served a year in prison for witness intimidation, but says his incarceration was due to his, then untreated, bipolar disorder.
He believes that anyone who has committed a crime that is not a Category A prisoner should be allowed to vote. They are “a resident of the UK” and therefore “should be eligible to vote.”
But with over 90, 000 people incarcerated in the UK, this represents quite a small percentage of the total number of people allowed to vote. Owens argues, that politicians would lose more than 90 000 votes if they were to push to allow prisoners the right, so it simply isn’t worth it. It would cause more problems than it would solve.
He said: “There are two types of criminality, the ones that get caught and the ones that don’t.”
“If you ride a train and don’t pay for a ticket and walk away you have committed a crime. But if you haven’t got caught then you’re not a criminal and you’re allowed to vote.”
It comes back to the argument of where to draw the line, and who in society should be allowed to decide where that line is drawn.
Owens said: “If you allow a vote for one prisoner you can’t distinguish one with the other by their crime. This is why it’s a topic that really won’t do anything more than antagonise society.”