Prisoners rights are important, they should matter to you and to everyone.
You’re probably wondering why you should care about the rights of people who have committed a crime? The answer is simple. There is an obligation under Article 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights to respect human rights. Article 3 of the convention states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Simply put, we all have human rights and even whilst in prison, those rights remain in place.
Prisoners have basic legal rights that are protected by law these include the right to food and water, protection from assault and racial harassment and access to a solicitor, and healthcare. Prisoners should be able to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour outside in open air each day also. Prisoners maintain their civil rights whilst in prison unless Parliament has expressly taken them away, this was affirmed in the case Raymond v Honey 1983. Prisoners are legally entitled to contact their family members and loved ones, and they are entitled to prison visits or phone calls and can write letters once a week.
Prisoners receive free healthcare whilst in prison and they are able to get specialist help such as for HIV/ Aids or if they have a drug or alcohol problem or have a learning difficulty. As a prisoner you are allowed to refuse healthcare treatment also.
Prisoners also have the right to marry whilst incarcerated, this decision was upheld in the case Hamer v UK 1983. This case involved a prisoner, Hamer who wanted to marry his partner whilst in prison. The case concerned a breach of Article 12 of the ECHR under which
Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right
Hamer was unsuccessful in the High Court, Appeal Court and the House of Lords but was finally successful in the ECHR.
What distinguishes prisoners and normal law-abiding citizens is that they obviously have some restrictions on their rights. For example, they can be stopped and searched at any point, moreover, the prison governor or district judge may punish prisoners if their behaviour breaches the rules in place at any time.
And whilst there are 85,000 adults locked up in prisons across England and Wales, with approximately and 73, 000 eligible to vote prisoners don’t however, have the right to vote. This is because section 3 (1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 forbids convicted prisoners from voting in any elections.
David Cameron once said the thought of allowing prisoners the right to vote made him “physically sick”.
In 2001 a prisoner, John Hirst, brought a case to the High Court but lost, he was successful in bringing his claim to the European Court of Human Rights. The ECtHR ruled unanimously that there had been a violation of Hirst’s human rights under Article 3 of the convention. Although the case had been decided by the ECtHR, the decision to implement it then falls to the Committee of Ministers. British Parliament, however, rejected the proposed amendments in 2011 with 234 against and 12 in favour. It doesn’t look like prisoners will have any voting rights in the near future. Government Ministers seem to be vehemently opposed to allowing prisoners the possibility of the right to vote.
In the book Prisons Exposed, Michael O’Brien a well-known miscarriage of justice victim recounts his experiences of life in prison and shares his thoughts on the rights of prisoners. He recounts how during his time in prison he was forced to squat and how the practice cannot be justified. He states that ‘while strip-searching of prisoners is a necessary evil, the Prison Service and prison officers cannot justify asking prisoners to bend over with no pants on so that they can look at anal passages to see if they are concealing drugs.’
Whilst it may seem unconscionable to allow prisoners who have been convicted of murder, manslaughter and sexual crimes to vote, many people think that it is important to allow prisoners the right to vote because prison should be about rehabilitation and this must include basic rights such the most basic right of the democratic process- the right to vote for who governs us. By denying prisoners their right to vote dehumanises prisoners.
Prisoners should be afforded rights whilst in prison because, in spite of the fact they committed a crime, it does not make them any less human. To deny them rights makes it more difficult to reintegrate them into society and no one learns to not commit a crime by denying them certain rights.
Prison should be about reintegration, this would not be possible if prisoners are denied their basic human rights. Prison already removes convicts from society and their support networks further. Prisons should plan ahead if they are to successfully reintegrate criminals back into society, and allowing them their right to vote and other rights is a good start because it humanises them and means that they won’t be as detached when they are finally released.
Norway is a prime example of a country that has successfully reformed the prison system. Norway has the lowest rate of re-offenders in Europe. This is because prisoners are treated like humans. Prisoners need to rehabilitated into a normal setting which resembles ordinary life, this is so that successful reintegration can occur and be as similar to their ordinary life so that they won’t be so detached and dehumanised.
O’Brien, M Prisons Exposed (Michael O’Brien and Y Lolfa Cyf., 2012)