Identity and Imprisonment: voting, citizenship and bureaucracy

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that some prisoners in the UK should be given the right to vote, but the UK Prime Minister insists that prisoners will not be afforded this right.  Quoted in the Daily Mail, he said: ‘I have always believed that when you are sent to prison, you lose certain rights and one of those rights is the right to vote and crucially I believe this should be a matter for Parliament to decide and not a foreign court. Parliament has made its decision and I completely agree with it.’

Prisoners are allowed to vote in 14 European countries, including Ireland, Spain and Sweden, and there are 16 more where prisoners have limited voting rights, including Germany, France and Italy. Apart from the UK, the only other EU member states which deny voting rights to sentenced prisoners are Bulgaria and Romania, Hungary and Estonia.

In a recent piece in The Guardian, Caspar Walsh outlines his reasons for supporting prisoners’ right to vote; ‘A prisoner’s rehabilitation as a safe, responsible and productive member of society must include the most basic right of democratic process – the right to choose who governs us’. Prisoners’ rights (or otherwise) to vote are an aspect of their citizenship, and a form of expression of political views. In other jurisdictions, prisoners are forbidden from displaying political images in their cells. In India’s Kannur Central Prison, prison authorities removed photographs of political leaders displayed by inmates. Nearly 300 pictures, ranging from those of Latin American revolutionary icon Che Guevera to photographs of Indian Congress leaders, were removed from cells. The decision to remove the pictures was apparently in response to claims that political prisoners in Kannur had turned their confinement into “party cells”, and that the jail had become a “hot bed of party politics”.

Denial of aspects of citizenship is a problem on an entirely different level for the ‘Anonymous Aliens’ who are the subject of Melanie Griffiths’ new paper. She traces the struggles many migrant detainees in the UK have in meeting official expectations and requirements regarding the nature of identities and how they can be proved. Frequently migrants have no identity documents (or those they have are considered false), they come from countries with minimal registration systems, or are generally assumed to be lying about their identities. UK Border Agency caseworkers may also ‘disprove’ their claimed identities during refusal of asylum applications. This combination of processes, she argues, results in some individuals either lacking a bureaucratically recognised identity, or alternatively having multiple identities attached to them; both situations hindering their removal from the UK since a ‘genuine’ identity must be re-established in order for Embassies to issue valid travel documents. In her paper, Griffiths examines what happens to people in this ‘limbo’ state with one identity under dispute and another officially confirmed, arguing that individuals may become vulnerable to criminalisation and exceptional treatment such as indefinite incarceration. She argues that “people beyond identification techniques become increasingly bureaucratically problematic, making them simultaneously threatening to and vulnerable to state apparatus.

Although UK prisoners and their rights to vote, Indian prisoners and their confiscated political posters, and ‘anonymous alien’ migrant detainees with unproven identities face different challenges in different situations, the issues of identity, citizenship, empowerment and disenfranchisement are common to each. What is interesting is that in each case, the official response is motivated in part by the ‘threat’ that is perceived to emanate from these disenfranchised individuals. In India, prison wardens pronounced Kannur Central Prison impossible to manage whilst political activism was facilitated by display of images. In migrant detention, Melanie Griffiths identifies the threat to state apparatus posed by the anonymous aliens, and Caspar Walsh suggests that perhaps one of the reasons why the UK Prime Minister is so reluctant to allow prisoners to vote is because “if voting rights were given to UK prisoners, politicians… would need to canvas inside prisons for votes and listen to the voices of the wide range of citizens we have behind bars”. Although, as he points out, this canvassing could involve a genuine focus on the long-term rehabilitation of the individual, and lead to better post-imprisonment outcomes, it would undoubtedly be a considerable, and perhaps an unpalatable, challenge.