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Prisoners, politics and the vote
Author: Cormac Behan

Prisoner enfranchisement remains one of the few contested electoral issues in twenty first century democracies. It is at the intersection of punishment and representative government. This book is the first comprehensive study of prisoners and the franchise in any jurisdiction. In a democratic polity, the deliberate denial of the right to vote to any section of the population has very serious implications, both symbolic, in terms of devaluing citizenship, and practical, in terms of affecting electoral outcomes. Conversely, the extension of the franchise is similarly emblematic of a political system’s priorities and emphases. The debate about prisoner enfranchisement is significant because it gives us some insights into the objectives of imprisonment, society’s conflicted attitude towards prisoners, the nature of democracy and the concept of citizenship. This book begins by considering the case for and against prisoner enfranchisement and then goes on to examine the jurisprudence in various jurisdictions where it has been a matter of legal and political controversy. Using the Republic of Ireland as a case study, this book analyses the experience of prisoner enfranchisement and locates it in an international context. It argues that the legal position concerning the voting rights of the imprisoned reveals wider historical, political and social influences in the treatment of those confined in penal institutions.

Cormac Behan

The cases for and against voting rights for prisoners have been widely examined in academic literature and political discourse. It is widely accepted that even in the most advanced liberal democracies there are limitations on the right to vote, depending on citizenship, age, mental competency and residency. What should these limitations be and who should decide on them? In the case of prisoners, should the withdrawal of the franchise be determined by a judge, decided on by the executive with legislative approval or settled by the people? Should the denial of the vote be a collateral consequence of imprisonment or part of the penalty for breaking the law? Should prisoners be denied the right to vote at all? The arguments for and against the enfranchisement of prisoners yield a number of insights into the objectives of imprisonment, the desire for penal reform, the complexities of citizenship and what restrictions, if any, there should be on participation in a democratic polity.

in Citizen convicts
Cormac Behan

Prisoner enfranchisement remains one of the few contested electoral issues in twenty first century democracies. This chapter examines the politics of, and international jurisprudence on, prisoner enfranchisement. It considers jurisdictions where it has become a matter of legal quarrel and political debate. The debate on prisoner enfranchisement is at the intersection of punishment and representative government, encompassing issues such as the purpose of imprisonment, the nature of the social contract and the meaning of citizenship. In the political debates, the language used and the arguments put forward in favour of, or against enfranchisement, go beyond whether or not prisoners should have the right to vote. It gives an indication of the proponent’s perspective on the aims of imprisonment. The first part of this chapter sets out international policy and practice on prisoners and enfranchisement. It then examines countries which have generally come down in favour of allowing some or all prisoners to vote and concludes by looking at jurisdictions that have attracted most attention - the United States and the United Kingdom - in political and judicial attempts to prevent prisoners’ access to the ballot box.

in Citizen convicts
Cormac Behan

This chapter examines the experience of enfranchisement based on interviews with fifty prisoners. Their narratives are used rather than the raw statistical data, usually associated with opinion polls and electoral surveys. It begins with an examination of topics such as prisoners and the vote, motivation behind political participation and the government decision on enfranchisement. The experience of postal voting, the facilities available, the election campaign (or lack of) within the prison walls are discussed. It concludes with some suggestions from prisoners about the desirability of deeper political and civic engagement. As this was the first occasion to interview prisoners after the 2007 general election, the decision to vote and identification with the electoral process were prominent themes The perspectives of prisoners are rarely heard in public policy discussions; especially criminal justice debates. The purpose of this chapter is to allow prisoners to give their perspectives on politics and civic engagement with the emphasis on their voices being heard.

in Citizen convicts
Cormac Behan

This chapter examines the level of active citizenship in prison based on the interviews with 50 prisoners. Recognising that citizenship encompasses more than just rights and responsibilities but is intertwined with participation, it considers their activities prior to imprisonment, the opportunities for participative citizenship behind bars and outlines some reasons for involvement in what are characterised as citizenship activities inside. The chapter concludes by reviewing the impact of an institution that limits agency, freedom of choice and movement, and restricts individuals’ involvement in civic society. While engaging in activities traditionally associated with freedom is problematic in prisons, different institutions provide opportunities for various levels of purposeful activity, programme participation and civic engagement. What impact, if any, does prison have on civic engagement and activities associated with citizenship among those who are sent there?

in Citizen convicts
Cormac Behan

This chapter brings the book to a close by making the case that enfranchisement is one element, albeit an important one, within wider spheres of prisoners rights and opportunities for participative citizenship. It outlines the challenges for prisoners in embracing the franchise and makes some suggestions about how to re-engage a section of the population disconnected from society and disillusioned with political and civic institutions. If the goal of enfranchisement is inclusion and allowing prisoners to participate as citizens, more needs to be done to achieve this, both within and without the prison. Encouraging prisoners to participate as citizens, with opportunities and meaningful spaces in their community on a daily basis rather than just on election day offers the potential for lived citizenship. However, this necessitates reframing penal policy, reimagining the role of imprisonment and re-conceptualising enfranchisement, regarding it as not merely enabling prisoners to vote, but rather as part of a process of engaging and empowering citizens.

in Citizen convicts
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Cormac Behan

The introduction sets the context for the issues to be examined in the book. It outlines the nature of the debates on prisoner enfranchisement and details each of the chapters to be considered throughout the book. It argues that prisoner enfranchisement must be examined in a wider social, historical and political framework.

in Citizen convicts
Cormac Behan

This chapter examines prisoner enfranchisement in the Republic of Ireland. As with many other jurisdictions, the issue was historically, socially and politically charged, with the debates and outcome reflecting local characteristics. The chapter begins with an outline of prisoners’ involvement in politics pre-independence, and later in that part of Ireland that achieved independence. Although prisoners were not allowed to vote for much of Irish history, this did not prevent them from engaging with, and at times, challenging the political system, especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet, despite using their prison experience for political advancement, on release, few political leaders became vocal advocates of penal reform in general, or prisoner enfranchisement in particular. This chapter considers why there was relatively little change in the prison system with almost no penal reform and no desire for enfranchisement from many of those who had experience of imprisonment. The final section examines the low-key introduction of legislation to allow prisoners to vote.

in Citizen convicts
Cormac Behan

The 2007 general election was the first opportunity for Irish prisoners to cast their ballots. This chapter examines their voting behaviour and political engagement. The first part sets out the research process, briefly sketches some key characteristics of the Irish penal landscape, and gives a description of the three institutions where prisoners were surveyed. Using data collected in these institutions, the second part outlines the results of the first survey of its kind among prisoners. It examines voting behaviour, party preference, political involvement and wider issues around levels of trust in political institutions and concludes with an analysis of who votes in prison. The final section examines the level of voting among prisoners in subsequent polls, to try to determine preliminary trends.

in Citizen convicts