Uncomfortable but practical idea

The idea behind jailing convicts is to deprive them of privileges and pleasures such as voting that law-abiding citizens take for granted.

But what can politicians promise prisoners?

Azmi Anshar, NST 

A proposal to allow prisoners to vote merits much thought

THERE are two ways to perceive the suggestion bandied by Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi allowing prisoners — all 35,000 languishing in prisons for various crimes — to vote in, presumably, a general election.

One, it is a practical idea that bodes well for their total rehabilitation and preparation to re-enter society, which they had forsaken after a spell in criminal activity that got them locked up in the first place.

Two, it is an uncomfortable suggestion, in that the primary idea of putting criminals away in prison is to punish them and part of that punishment is to deprive them of creature comforts, privileges and pleasures that law-abiding citizens take for granted.

Like the old saying goes, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. If you insist on doing the crime, then be prepared to face the music.

Sure, some prisoners, despite understanding the adversity, deprivation and stigma associated with prison time, still commit the crime although enough literature, pop culture and media exposure have warned them that cynical breaches of the law have grave consequences.

We are not talking about traffic offences, jay-walking, illegal demonstration or certain white-collar crime, which can be settled by an obligatory court appearance leading to moderate to heavy fines.

We are talking about the violent crimes of murder, rape, assault, thievery, robbery, drug dealing and smuggling, human trafficking and high-level corruption that affect public order.

Offenders often suffer from the megalomaniacal delusion that they are above the law, untouchable and invincible, so they continue with their disorganised, and organised, crime spree — until they get caught. Just think of the monumental effort put up by law enforcement to catch these criminals.

Then they have to be charged and tried (think of the long and arduous court due process) before they can be convicted according to the Penal Code provisions and locked up in a prison system that’s getting to be more expensive to maintain by the year as the criminal populace grows.

A nominal inquiry into Malaysia’s prison system show they are building more and bigger prisons. In fact, a sense of pride and accomplishment emanate in constructing these new prisons when the epiphany should be that we have failed to curb crime but improved in catching criminals.

Finally, there’s the long-term prisoner rehabilitation process — uneasy, laborious and uncertain. Real pride shines if jailbirds turn over a new leaf and contribute positively to society after serving their sentences.

Unfortunately, the hardcore will return to their old ways, unable to shake off the temptation to thievery, conniving and violence, and they land straight back in the slammer to restart the whole rehab process all over again.

Having stated that, prisoners still retain their constitutional right to legal representation to appeal convictions, but they cannot expect an easy ride, just as they cannot expect to live in a five-star hotel inside the prison, what more to vote.

Still, let’s say Zahid’s proposal is agreeable to lawmakers who ease up on all legal variables and circumvent mechanisms blocking prisoner vote. How would they allow prisoners to cast their ballots?

Let’s start with campaigning. Seeing that prisoners are deprived of TV and Internet time, they can’t be Facebooking, tweeting, texting and emailing, can they? So, would the authorities open this access first because without multimedia exposure, how would prisoners know whom or which party to vote?

Would prospective candidates be allowed to campaign inside prisons, say before a mini rally of whooping and pumped-up prisoners who love the idea of being wooed because by their standards, they get to have a little festivity and maybe good food served.

But what can politicians promise prisoners? It won’t be the usual offerings, but from a prisoner’s real-world point of view, they would want better food, from takeaways and fancy restaurants, more family visiting hours, conjugal rights and more cash and perks injected into their prison pensions for them to spend when they do get out.

Certainly, prisoners can’t mingle with civilian voters in a general election (unless you are one of the 3,500 parolees) and queue for ballots. So, a postal ballot system has to be employed the same way members of the police and armed forces vote.

British prisoners voted in the 2010 general election for the first time in 140 years after a British convicted killer won an application to vote from the European court. In the United States, only prisoners on parole or probation might be allowed, provided they pay taxes or abide by strict conditions.

These are just the intriguing quirks that Zahid must contemplate when he talks to the security and prison authorities and experts in the prison system. But if he gets his wish, he will write a historic new chapter — the unprecedented prisoner vote — in the annals of socio-politics, civil liberties and human rights.