Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

21: Political and civic participation (2019)

Standard 21:

Prisoners are encouraged to engage with their political and civic rights.

Rationale:

Promoting civic and political engagement supports active citizenship. Therefore, it is important that due consideration is given to how prisoners can connect and engage with the civic and political process.[403]

Current context:

The right of prisoners as citizens should not be neglected or infringed upon. The rights of prisoners as citizens should be further promoted in penal policy.
Civic and political education is offered in some parts of the prison estate, including: Cloverhill, Limerick, Midlands, Mountjoy, Portlaoise and Wheatfield.[404] Only civic education is offered in the Dóchas Centre.[405]
In 2018 and 2019 (thus far) a number of elections and referendums have been held in Ireland. Prisoner participation rates have been low compared to other countries, and indeed with previous rates in Ireland. Ireland’s most recent prisoner participation rate is approximately 3% (see indicator 21.2).

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 21

Indicator S21.1: The number of prisoner representative groups in each prison.

The majority of prisons in the estate have: a ‘Lifers’ group, a Red Cross group and a ‘Listeners’ group. There is a ‘Women’s Voice’ group in Limerick Prison for women, while the Dóchas Centre has established a prisoner’s council.[406]

Indicator S21.2: The number of prisoners voting (%) in elections.

On 24 May 2019, approximately 3.5% of the prison population voted in the local and European elections and divorce referendum. Approximately 3.8% of the prison population voted in the 2018 presidential elections on the 26 October 2018.

Voting among prisoners for local and European elections and divorce referendum, 2019

Prison Registered to Vote Voted
Arbour Hill 6 6
Castlerea 1 1
Cloverhill 4 0
Cork 0 0
Dóchas 12 10
Limerick 4 0
Loughan 1 1
Midlands 8 7
Mountjoy 143 96
Portlaoise 2 2
Shelton Abbey N/A N/A
Wheatfield 43 20
Total 224 143

On 26 October 2018, the prison population was 3,875. Approximately 3.8% of the prison population voted in the 2018 presidential elections.

Voting among prisoners for 2018 presidential elections, 2018

Prison Registered to Vote Voted
Arbour Hill 6 5
Castlerea 0 0
Cloverhill 4 0
Cork 0 0
Limerick 4 0
Loughan 2 2
Midlands 30 28
Mountjoy (male) 138 89
Mountjoy (female) no data no data
Portlaoise 0 0
Shelton Abbey 2 0
Wheatfield 45 24
Total 231 148

Analysis

Approximately 3-4% of the prison population voted in the last two ballots in Ireland. This is slightly higher than participation rates for the referendum held on the Eighth Amendment in May 2018, which was reported at 1.45%.[407] However, the prisoner participation voting rate has been declining throughout the years since being granted the right to vote in 2006.[408] In 2007, 12% of the prison population voted in the general election. In 2011, the rate dropped to 6.87% for the general election and dropped again for the general election in 2016, coming in at 4.2%.[409] The participation rate has always been low but recent years have seen even a further (albeit gradual) decrease.

By contrast, the voter turnout rate in Polish prisons is much higher: 31.1% in local elections in 2018, which was lower than in 2015, when prison voter turnout for local elections was 46.5%.[410]

Further work must be done to increase the number of prisoners engaging with their civic and political rights in each prison.

Status of Standard 21: Mixed

Progressive Practice:

Voting in Poland

In Poland, prisoners vote in a ballot station and are informed by in-house radio of the order in which they will vote and at what time.[411] (Prisoners in Ireland can only use a postal vote.)[412] Prison officers bring prisoners down to the polling station. Special provisions are made for prisoners with disabilities.

Prisoners Committees, the Netherlands

In 2016, the CPT reported that all prisons in the Netherlands had a Prisoners Committee. The Prisoners Committee is composed of prisoners elected by their peers. The Committee meets weekly and raises the concerns of prisoners, including suggestions to improve the prison’s management. The Committee has regular meetings with the prison governor. Agendas are prepared in advance and minutes published. The CPT concluded:

The CPT considers it to be a good practice which could be replicated in other countries.[413]

Actions required:

Action 21.1: The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government should conduct a feasibility study on introducing polling stations in prisons in order to encourage prisoners to vote during elections.
Action 21.2: All political parties should commit to visiting prisons ahead of elections and referendums in order to meet with citizens, learn about issues and encourage voting in prison.

References:

Irish Penal Reform Trust

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