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Prisoners in Ireland and Election 2011

24th February 2011

The Irish Times reports that just under 200 prisoners have cast their votes in Election 2011 (down significantly on the 2007 election). This comes at a time when prisoner voting rights are receiving intense political attention in the UK.

Prisoners cast their votes by postal ballot for the constituencies of their home address. Kitty Holland reports that at Wheatfield Prison, just under 10% of prisoners registered, all of whom voted. The prison actively facilitated the process, through provision of posters and information, and a polling booth. Holland quotes assistant chief prison officer, Kevin O’Neill: “I do think it’s important for prisoners to vote. It gives them a sense of responsibility and ownership back into their lives.”

The Electoral (Amendment) Act, 2006 was commenced in 2006 under a Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition government. Support for the bill centred on encouraging the rehabilitation of offenders through underlining their responsibility to themselves and society by way of voting rights; meeting the Government’s obligations under the provisions of the ECHR was another crucial aspect. There was no voiced opposition to the passing of the bill, and the media paid no attention at all.

The first election in which prisoners voted was the General Election of May 2007. The level of registration among prisoners was considered quite low: just 451 out of 3,359 prisoners. Excluding those ineligible to vote (under 18s, foreign nationals) approx. 14% of those eligible to vote registered to do so. Nevertheless, 71.4% of those registered actually voted - a higher percentage than that of the general population (67%).

Today, the prisoner population is around 4,500 (34% higher than in May 2007) and the percentage registered to vote is 4%. It is unclear why numbers are lower than in 2007.

Given the lower educational attainment and literacy issues experienced among the prisoner population (compared with the general population), it is perhaps not surprising that generally registration among prisoners should be low.

Furthermore, the vast majority of prisoners come from disadvantaged communities, which suffer disproportionately from poverty, poor physical and mental health, substance addictions and educational disadvantage. These communities generally feel excluded from the public sphere; prisoner voting rights therefore present an opportunity for encouraging civic engagement among the more marginalised of society.

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