Ballots Behind Bars

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41 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    Should they be allowed laptops in their cells?

    Gaming consoles?

    Should 2nd Amendment rights apply to prisoners (there might be savings available here)?

    Prison is a really, really awful solution to a really, really awful set of problems.

    Whether prisoners ought to be able to vote is yet another awful thing arising from our go-to solution of throwing people away for 10 or 20 years.Report

    • pillsy in reply to Jaybird says:

      With the possible exception of game consoles (which are allowed in some prisons in some countries) those things all seem like they’d probably cause a set of issues that allowing prisoners to vote wouldn’t.

      Also, we (as in our elected officials and their agents) really aggressively treat prisoners like shit in this country. Maybe they should have a say in who governs them to just maybe try to blunt that a little.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

        I am still on team “get rid of prisons”.

        Not because I don’t understand the theory of why we need them. I agree with why we need them.

        It’s the actuality of them that makes me say “yeah, let’s get rid of this crap.”Report

        • Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

          I’m not sure we can abolish prisons, but I agree that our criminal justice philosophy is adrift.

          Though, I’ll also admit that for every “harmless” incarcerated person we think we’re helping, there are 2x, 3x, 4x the number of folks whose crimes would astound us. And then I despair.

          That said, suspension of voting privileges while incarcerated by the justice system is positively an appropriate deprivation of political privileges. If we were to deny those privileges *after* punishment had been served, then that would strike me as unjust.

          But, if politicians want to curry votes among the prison population, then who am I to judge?Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

            I’ll repeat myself and repeat a comment I made back in 2014:

            “Why is this guy in prison?”
            “He shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
            “Makes sense. Why is this guy in prison?”
            “He stole cars for a living. He specialized in people who couldn’t afford another car.”
            “Yeah, that’s good too. Why is this guy in prison?”
            “He sold drugs that make you feel good to people who wanted to feel good.”
            “Um… I suppose drug dealers belong in prison… why is this guy in prison?”
            “He used drugs that made him feel good.”
            “Um… is that a good idea? Well, this cell is empty. That’s good right?”
            “Well, we had it prepped for a guy who was selling loose cigarettes illegally but the cops who were arresting him killed him while he was complaining about constantly being harassed.”
            “I’m beginning to think that prisons aren’t as good an idea as I used to.”
            “What, do you think that murderers and car thieves should go free???”


            • Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

              Ok, let’s say we simply open the doors to everyone who’s in jail for any drug related charge… heroin, cocaine, meth, pot, etc. Everyone.

              We’re still nowhere near abolishing prisons.

              But, as I’ve said many times, I agree that our philosophy of crime/punishment and justice is unmoored. Though, ironically in the context of this thread, suspending voting privileges isn’t one of the things that needs fixing. But letting loose all non-violent Drug Trafficers doesn’t remoor our system.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

                I am trying to train myself to ask “wait, what are we trying to do?” when I see myself discussing kludges on kludges on kludges on kludges.

                What is the point of prison?

                Is it some combination of sequestration and punishment? (It sure as hell isn’t rehabilitation.)


                What the hell is the point? If we can figure out what the point is, maybe we can re-calibrate to do that.

                (Is there an island like Australia we can move them to and prevent them from leaving?)Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Fair enough, but as it pertains to the original post… surely the minimal point of prisons is the temporary removal of the bad actor from the body politic.

                After that, you can only have a justice system that is supported by the shared cultural framework that determines justice. Absent any concept of justice… its vengeance all the way down.

                Being angry with vengeance, however, does not restore a shared framework of justice.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Well, if the point is sequestration from society, adding “but you should still be able to help steer it!” seems…

                Well. We deliberately removed them from civil society.

                Is this one of those things that we’re doing because we assume that most people in prison shouldn’t be there rather than most people in prison are exactly where they belong?Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Two separate questions.

                Let me put it backwards… if we are arguing to give them the vote precisely because we do not believe they should be there… then victory in giving those people the vote would be a monstrous waste of time and a horrible miscarriage of justice.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Yes, but one not meaningfully addressed by suffrage.Report

              • Marchmaine in reply to Marchmaine says:

                Right…so then we agree?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:


                This sucks and our choices seem to be between not changing it meaningfully and not changing it at all.Report

        • pillsy in reply to Jaybird says:

          I am still on team “get rid of prisons”.

          This is absolutely a position I respect, though I’m not there yet.

          However, in the absence of actually being able to get rid of prisons, giving prisoners the ability to vote seems like a step (if perhaps a small one) in the direction of improving conditions within those prisons.

          We may not resolve the fundamental contradictions in the way prisons are organized because it’s been a mess for basically as long as we’ve had the modern idea of “prison”.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

            Given that my main intuition about the prisoners who we (as a society!) all agree need to be in prison should, instead, be exiled from our society, I’m not really a fan of giving them the vote. (The ones we agree shouldn’t be in prison shouldn’t be in prison.)

            What problem are we trying to solve?Report

            • pillsy in reply to Jaybird says:

              One problem we’re trying to solve is that lots of people who shouldn’t be in prison are.

              Most of the people who shouldn’t be in prison, it stands to reason, probably don’t want to be there, so giving them a little more say over who is in prison might help.

              However, beyond that, there is, under our current approach, be an incentive to over-police, over-prosecute, and over-incarcerate people you want to marginalize politically. Even if no one is acting on that incentive, getting rid of it seems like a positive, if only as a prophylactic.

              Finally, even if we have only people we want in prison in prison, the people in prison still have rights, and given our premises, I remain concerned that those rights may be violated. Hell, they may be violated even more viciously because of a broader societal consensus that the people in prison really have it coming.

              (Also, I’m not really sure where we’ll exile the people to, so it may be harder than it looks to dispense with prison.)Report

              • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

                And if more of them who should be in prison are in prison than those who shouldn’t be are there, you’re talking about giving suffrage to people that we have, effectively, exiled from society.

                I’m still not going to be on board with that.

                If you point to the guy in prison for buying marijuana, I get hung up on “then get him out of there!” instead of “well, we should at least let him vote with the Peckerwood Neo-Nazi gang. Hey! Maybe his vote will cancel theirs out!”Report

              • pillsy in reply to pillsy says:

                That’s true.

                Even members of the Peckerwood Neo-Nazi Gang, as repulsive as they are, retain rights that don’t go away once they’re behind bars.

                I look at the current system, and how well it does at respecting the rights of prisoners, even the ones the Neo-Nazis should have, and frankly it does an incredibly crap job.

                Even Nazis don’t deserve rape, or torture, or medical care so bad parts of their bodies rot and fall off [1] but these are all abuses that are rife in prisons now.

                [1] I mean if they were outside they could get care on their own but not so much here.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

                I agree that they have human rights that should not be violated.

                Given the host of variables involved with voting in the US, I admit to thinking that voting, as we understand it, is a privilege.

                One that shouldn’t be extended to people that we, as a society, agree ought to be sequestered from society.Report

              • pillsy in reply to pillsy says:


                OK, but how do we actually stop their human rights from being violated? What other mechanisms do we have to protect them that you think won’t fail?

                Like this seems to be one of those places where we might even need a compromise, you know?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

                If we can’t get rid of prison rape by passing laws, I am pretty sure that we won’t be able to get rid of it by letting them vote on the stormwater ballot tax initiative.Report

              • pillsy in reply to pillsy says:

                What about letting them vote on who appoints the people running the Department of Corrections?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

                Are there any states (or, heck, countries) where prisoners are given the vote?

                What changed between before and after with prison suffrage?

                If you can show me how stuff got better afterwards, I will open my mind as to whether those sequestered from society should still get a voice in how it is operated.

                If it’s an appeal to what my priors ought to be, were I good, I’m afraid that I am unmoved.

                (But not unmovable… if you have data…)Report

              • pillsy in reply to pillsy says:

                It’s an appeal to what I think are reasonable priors, but not priors that would shed light on your moral character…?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

                I can see why someone might think that if we can’t get rid of sexual assault in prisons, we might as well let them vote on whether recreational weed should be legalized, sure.

                I’m just unmoved as to how voting is a right that is being violated by sequestering them away from society.

                But if you want to make a Utilitarian Appeal, I’d love to hear it. What happened when other places did this policy that is imperative that we implement?Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to pillsy says:

                Felons can vote in Maine and Vermont while they are in prison.Report

              • pillsy in reply to pillsy says:

                I’m not actually trying to argue that voting is a right that is being unjustly taken away from prisoners. I do believe that, but know it’s a premise you reject and that’s fine.

                My argument is the utilitarian one, and those are the priors I’m talking about. Creating a political constituency that is incredibly interested in the well-being of prisoners is likely to make the state more interested in the well-being of citizens.

                Do I have data? No, and I’m kinda tired so I’m not going to search for them at the moment. If you think the priors I’m appealing to are lousy, sure, that’s fine.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

                If the argument is “this policy will make things better”, then I just want to know what happened when, sure, Vermont and Maine changed the policy.

                Did things get better?

                We’ve got examples from two states!

                It doesn’t even have to be about priors anymore! We can look at how much things got better!Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to pillsy says:

                “voting, as we understand it, is a privilege”

                Wait, what?

                I can’t grasp a moral principle that would produce such a conclusion.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:


                Well, if my arguments above are ungraspable for you, I doubt I’ll be able to make them more so.

                (Out of curiosity, are you familiar with arguments that the rest of the world ought to be allowed to vote in Presidential elections due to the outsized influence of the US?)Report

        • Dark Matter in reply to Jaybird says:

          You tell me what the rules are, I tell you what my actions are. Get rid of the prisons and the rich and middle class move into gated communities with armed guards, they’ll be fine. Similarly big business can put up fences and such, they’ll be fine too.

          If I have to pay for armed guards because law enforcement is worthless than I’m going to vote to get rid of law enforcement. The economic effects will be EXTREMELY nasty. Most businesses will refuse to create jobs where it’s unsafe.

          So basically it’s really going to suck to be poor because this is really going to concentrate poverty.Report

          • Mr.Joe in reply to Dark Matter says:

            You will get alternate law enforcement. In areas where the “legal” law enforcement is ineffective or absent, a de fecto legal structure emerges, we usually call them gangs. It can be jarring to move from our fancy Constitutionally derived legal structure to a more local homegrown version, but people are adaptive.

            If big businesses stay out, others will pop up. Under Jim Crow, respectable businesses did not serve the coloreds. So the coloreds made their own businesses. When there is demand, supply rises to meet it.Report

        • Joe M. in reply to Jaybird says:

          I think we could substantially improve the actuality of prisons if we could agree on what the goal of prison is, besides the obvious “to reduce crime”. The broad disagreements seem a substantial reason they do not do their job well. To me folks expect prisons to do only one or sometimes all of the following. However, the prison system in the US is relatively uniform with little variation.

          1) Use time to educate and train convict so that they have tools and resources to never feel the need to commit the crime again.

          2) Adult version of “go to the corner and think about what you did. NOW, do you realize your mistake?”

          3) Extract a just price from the convict and serve as an example to others of the price to be paid.

          4) Keep convict forever separate from society.

          Optimal prisons serving each of these 4 broad goals would probably look very different.Report

          • Stillwater in reply to Joe M. says:

            I think we could substantially improve the actuality of prisons if we could agree on what the goal of prison is, besides the obvious “to reduce crime”.

            Do we agree on that, though? My view is that prison is primarily designed to (punitively) punish the bad actor, not to reduce crime. If we really wanted to reduce crime we wouldn’t imprison so many people.Report

            • Dark Matter in reply to Stillwater says:

              Add to that list:
              5) …”for as low a monetary cost as possible”.
              6) To create jobs (think the prison guards union for example).
              7) To let politicians virtue signal via political posturing.Report

            • Mr.Joe in reply to Stillwater says:

              Maybe we don’t even agree on the purpose of prisons is to reduce crime. All 4 hypothetical prisons I listed should reduce crime. Punishing bad actors (#3) should have a deterrent effect on people considering committing a crime.Report

          • Aaron David in reply to Joe M. says:

            Well, there are differences in prisons though. Think Lompoc vs. a supermax. The real problem is in deciding what is the appropriate course of action. And we can only determine that from a few things. None of which is very accurate in terms of assessment.

            And add to that the issue of not agreeing on what the actual purpose and needs are.Report

  2. Chip Daniels says:

    There is that old saying that if you want to measure the justness of a society, look at how they treat their prisoners.

    This suggests that prisoners have even more of a moral right to have a say in their governance, since they are most acutely subject to the whim of it.Report

  3. Mike Dwyer says:


    Thank you for the thoughtful post. I absolutely believe prisoners should have full voting rights. As much as I try to stay informed about the issues, and as fun as it is for a bunch of mostly white, well-educated, financially secure people to argue about what is best for minority, less-educated, poor people in places like this…they are probably the ones that we should be listening to. In my very limited experience talking to people who have either been in prison or lived in places where a lot of their neighbors are convicted felons, they are very, very rationale about the conditions that need to be changed in order for the cycle to stop. Honestly, if it meant a politician would take the time to visit with them and really listen to them, I would give them my vote, because there are plenty of other ways I can contribute. Their voice is all they have.

    My only small disagreement would be this:

    “…on the condition that they are registered in the precinct where the jail is located…”

    I don’t know about other states, but here in Kentucky our jails are in some out-of-the-way places. We have inmates there from all over the state, many from here in Louisville, which has the highest number of felons of any city. It seems weird that they would vote in their local precinct and not with the precinct they resided in prior to their incarceration.Report

  4. Tracy Downey says:

    Noah, I truly enjoyed reading this. It’s important to learn other states rights when it comes to correctional rehabilitation. In Nevada, if you are a non- violent offender, and completed your sentence, you can vote. But if you are a violent offender, your rights must be re-instated by the courts, and there’s heavy debate on this subject on whether it should be automatic or not.

    I agree with our state. But I also feel not every violent offense deserves to have their voting rights re-unstated: sex offenders. I don’t think they can be rehabilitated.


  5. Catchling says:

    People who break a country’s laws shouldn’t be shut out of the lawmaking process. Otherwise, hypothetically, you could have laws against arbitrary activities like square-dancing or smoking cannabis or riding in a canoe, and the people most impacted by such a law and its enforcement would be especially powerless to address the injustice.

    If a numerical majority of Americans comes to support the legalization of murder or the prohibition of a religion or whatever, the place to address the problem is Constiutional/bedrock level, with specificity about which laws we’re saying can’t be undone even by the uninformed masses.Report