Guardian journalist Erwin James on why prisoners should be allowed to vote

Former prisoner argues that the ban on prisoner voting is discriminatory.

Source: National Institution of Women's Institutes/Flickr

Source: National Institution of Women’s Institutes/Flickr


Erwin James spent 20 years in prison before his release in 2004. He is now a Guardian journalist and author of A Life Inside. He wrote this post for Prison Watch UK to argue that prisoners’ right to vote has nothing to do with criminality and is simply a form of discrimination.


There is so much tragedy and crisis around the world at the moment, so much suffering and pain, that the last issue that anyone might want to be concerned with in the UK today is voting rights for prisoners. But since today is polling day it is worth considering why exactly the ninety odd thousand adult prisoners in this country are denied the vote.

In 2004 the ban on prisoner voting here was declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. The New Labour government in power decided not to act and the ban stayed in place.

In 2010 the newly elected Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron went so far as to say, “It makes me physically ill to even contemplate having to give the vote to anyone in prison.”

So the ban wasn’t just for murderers, rapists and paedophiles, he didn’t want any person in prison for any offence to be allowed to vote. Now I have never been a flag-waver for prisoners’ rights – not when I was in jail and not since I’ve been free. But the absurdity of denying a prisoner the vote just because he or she is a prisoner makes no intelligent sense at all.

In April 2011 I interviewed Lord Woolf, who conducted the inquiry into the Strangeways Riot of 1990 and had just taken over as Chair of the Prison Reform Trust. I asked him where he stood on prisoner voting rights. He expressed bemusement by the controversy in his answer.

“I just can’t understand, quite frankly, the antipathy towards it. What we want to do is make prisoners much more responsible, and giving them the responsibility of voting seems to me wholly consistent with that. I think it is very unfortunate that there is all this hyped up fussabout it. I don’t know how many prisoners would vote, but I think they should have that opportunity.”

Woolf’s answer was typically common sense, but here is the real absurdity of David Cameron’s stance. A convicted murderer who serves his or her “tariff” time in prison and is then released on licence can stroll into the polling station on Election Day and cast a vote without the slightest hindrance or restriction. Yet the mother imprisoned for failing to ensure her child has attended school, or the pensioner jailed for non-payment of a television licence cannot vote if an election is called while they are inside. This denial is not because they are criminals, but because they are prisoners.

Another absurdity regarding this issue is the inequity of the sentencing process. Somebody who commits a burglary in Surrey and is awarded six months in prison is denied the vote if an election takes place during the sentence. Someone who commits an identical offence in Yorkshire and gets a couple of hundred hour’s community service and a period of probation is not. So the ban is nothing to do with criminality. It is pure and simply discrimination because of an individual’s status as a prisoner.

Arguing for prisoner voting Lord Woolf said he didn’t know how many prisoners would vote, “but they should have that opportunity.”

The fact is that how many prisoners might or might not vote is irrelevant. So long as people in prison are denied this fundamental democratic birth right – it allows politicians and the media to treat them as less than the rest of the good people in society. This in turn encourages a popular belief that prisoners are “the other” – subhuman and worthy of nothing but scorn and derision when it comes to their human rights. Hardly an attitude that might inspire a locked up person to want to re-join society as a conscientious, hard-working, law abiding citizen.

I hope whoever ends up in power when the votes cast today are counted will think that despite all the struggle and strife in the world the issue of prisoner voting is indeed something still worth being concerned about. It will take great moral strength and courage to remedy this iniquitous situation – a good test for a new leader.


Erwin James’ next book, Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope is published by
Bloomsbury in February 2016.

TWITTER: @prisonwatchuk

One Comment on “Guardian journalist Erwin James on why prisoners should be allowed to vote”

  1. Ancient Mariner says:

    The differance between a Conservative Majority Government and a Conservative Minority Government was about 970 votes in certain marginal constituencies, so only a handful of votes can make a huge differance to the governance of the country.
    It is not an offence to be on the Electoral Register in Prison. Some prisoners are released on Home Detention Curfew for the last 3 months of their sentence. This is not a right, but a privilege granted by a person who is not acknowledged as impartial. There is no reason why someone on Home Detention Curfew should not vote, although technically he is in prison, although not counted in Prison Population Statistics. If all prisoners in the last 3 months of their sentence were given the vote, then there could be no possibility of gerrymandering an election by descions on granting HDC. A few thousand prisoners are on recall. The recall decision again is not made by persons regarded as impartial and unbiased, if the prisoner had cast a postal vote before arrest then his vote would be counted. If not he won’t be able to vote. My answer to these problems would be to give prisoners a proxy vote. This would allow the prime minister to retain his bile. Subject to a limit on the number of proxy votes one person can have preferably one, this would be fairer.


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