Wed, 14 Apr 2010 Feature Article

Why voting by prisoners? Supreme Court is wrong

Why voting by prisoners? Supreme Court is wrong

As a layman, not learned in the law, I respectfully submit that the Supreme Court gravely and seriously erred, when its ruling gave convicted and remand prisoners the right to vote while still in the prisons. (See THE DAILY GRAPHIC of Wednesday, March 24, 2010).

In arriving at their decision, the Honorable Members of the Supreme Court, led by the Chief Justice herself, relied on Article 42 of the 1992 Constitution, which states, "Every citizen of Ghana of eighteen years of age or above and of sound mind has the right to vote, and is entitled to be registered as a voter for the purpose of public elections and referendum."

The Graphic account reports the Supreme Court Justices as finding it extremely difficult to understand what constitutionally legitimate interest was served by the non-recognition of the prisons as places of residence for the purpose of voter registration, even for those who had been convicted of high crimes such as subversion and treason.

The report further quotes the Justices as stating, "Even for those who attempt to derail the democratic process, voting remains an important means of teaching them democratic values." Really?

The Justices consequently declared as void, Section 7(5) of the Representation of the People Law 1992 (PNDC Law 284). Until the Supreme Court ruling, the Law imposed a residency requirement or disqualification, under which convicted prisoners were deemed disqualified.

Dear reader, do you know what we are going to hear next? A group of self-appointed human rights do-gooders will advocate that our prisoners should be given the equivalent of 5-star hotel accommodation, fed on gourmet food prepared by French chefs, clothed by Savile Row tailors, shoed by GUCCI shoes, and treated by Harley Street specialists.

They might even advocate that special married quarters be provided in the prisons so that married prisoners could have conjugal relations in privacy during spousal visits.

Not to be outdone, another group might even state that imprisonment itself is a violation of a person's fundamental rights, such as the right to freedom of movement and the freedom of choice (what to eat, when to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed, and when to wake up, etc).

These people could go further to suggest that instead of imprisonment, the convicted person should be allowed to go home and have counseling visits from psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, social workers and priests.

I am not trivialising such a serious matter as imprisonment, with its far-reaching social and economic implications.

I am also not being ridiculous and insensitive. Visits to prisons by public officials, write-ups, television cameras and first-hand accounts by former prison inmates have brought home to us the horrors of prison life in our country today.

These horrors include the provision of nutritionally valueless substances passing off as food: sleeping arrangements in which prisoners take turns between standing and lying packed like sardines, feet towards heads; forced homosexuality; physical assault on prisoners by fellow prisoners; such diseases as skin rash, tuberculosis, aids and vision impairment.

The blue, two-piece prison garb is degrading. Any measures that can be adopted to ameliorate conditions in our prisons should be welcomed. After all, as human beings, prisoners cannot be treated like stones or pieces of dead wood. We do not have a class of people destined to be prisoners. Those of us who are outside today, could be inside tomorrow.

Still, while we should all continue to work hard at extending the frontiers of freedoms and rights, if any, when necessary, we should be careful not to push this human rights idea to ridiculous and absurd lengths.

Let me concede that as clearly shown by history, not everyone who is put in jail is guilty of an offence.

Some people have gone to jail as victims of political or religious persecution. Some have been victims of trumped-up charges and perjured evidence.

Some may have been tortured to confess to the crimes they never committed. But, what about the truly guilty ones?

Why do our judges send people to jail? What are the determinants in the jailing process?

First, there is the punitive factor. We live in a society governed by laws. Any person who falls foul of he laws of the land must suffer the consequences.

A person, who assaults another person, robs a fellow human being or rapes a woman, goes contrary to the laws of the society. He pays the price of his anti-social behaviour.

Secondly, there is the revenge factor. In our society, we do not allow the victim of robbery, assault, rape or fraud to take his or her own steps to seek revenge.

The State comes in to give the victim the satisfaction of knowing that a certain amount of justice has been done.

Thirdly, there is the factor of deterrence. The idea is that imprisonment is meant to act as a deterrent to the person who goes to jail and to others who might want to commit a crime.

Fourthly, the judge jails a criminal to give temporary protection to society, especially, where the crime is particularly gruesome. The judge may use harsh words, and may even sentence the accused to prison in hard labour.

Finally, there is the factor of reformation. The idea is that inside the prison, certain processes may be set up to empower the prisoner economically, by being trained to have skills, and also make him morally better, so as to fit into society when he leaves prison.

I am saying that those who go to jail are temporarily separated from society. When his right to vote is temporarily taken from him, what injury is done to him or to society?

Take the moral dimension too. Article 42 talks of any citizen "of sound mind". I respectfully ask the Chief Justice and her Justices; "Who is sicker in the mind than a group of criminals who gang-rape a married woman before the very eyes of her husband and children, before robbing the household of valuables acquired over several years?"

"Who is more mentally deranged that the adult who defiles his own daughter aged eight years or even less? Why should we treat with kid gloves armed robbers who not only rob their victim but kill him, because he recognises some of them and they fear that he will report them to the police?"

In any case, prisons cannot be seen as places of permanent residence. Even a person sentenced to life imprisonment may not spend the whole of his life in prison.

Parole, release on health grounds, a presidential pardon, or some other means may put him out of prison before serving the whole sentence.

The Supreme Court should review its decision now.
Credit: I.K. Gyasi/Chronicle