Australia: prisoner advocates call for abolition of 'discriminatory' voting restrictions as inmates prepare to cast vote in state election for the first time

For the first time in Queensland's history, thousands of inmates in correctional centres across the state will be given the right to vote in the upcoming october state election.

Prior to the legislative changes that came into effect in January, Queensland had the most restrictive prisoner voting laws in the country, with inmates barred from participating in state or local government elections.

Now, prisoners serving sentences of less than three years will be given the power to elect the future leader of the state and have a meaningful say on the issues that define their future — both inside and outside prison walls. They will also retain their right to vote in federal elections. Queensland’s Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath told parliament the changes brought Queensland in line with other states and territories.

While prisoner advocates such as Greg Barns SC described the move as “a good start”, many said it doesn’t go far enough.

“These are returning citizens”

Mr Barns, the National Human Rights spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said all prisoners should be entitled to vote, irrespective of the length of their sentence. “Why stop at three years? What’s the magic of three years? It’s completely arbitrary and we need to go further,” Mr Barns said.“They’re not just prisoners, these are returning citizens.Why is it that the right to vote depends on your conduct? There are plenty of people in the community who behave disgracefully.”

Mr Barns said he hoped the move would lead to improved prisoner welfare, and a more nuanced debate that changed politicians’ rhetoric around law and order. “Prisoners themselves have no voice, unlike everybody else in society — everyone has a voice at the ballot-box but they have none,” he said. “But when they come back in [to society], we expect them to be totally well-behaved.

“We say, ‘we want you to come back into the community, but we’re going to strip you of your dignity, take away your right to vote and your Centrelink payments.”

“So we’re going to shun you but then we expect you to be a good boy and girl — a fully-fledged citizen. It just doesn’t make sense.” According to the Department of Corrective Services, the state’s newest cohort of voters numbers about 2,674 inmates who are serving terms of three years or less.

The move comes as tensions in prisons across the state reached boiling point when inmates began rioting in protest of extensive lockdowns and a lack of basic services, such as meals and medications. A mother whose teenage son is in custody at the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre, wrote an open letter to the Premier, detailing “brutal and inhumane” conditions. The letter said some prisoners were given just one meal a day, had no clean clothes for a week and were forced to sleep naked.The woman, who did not wish to be named, told the ABC her son was disgusted with how guards were treating inmates. “This is a constant, ongoing system fail. We want answers,” she wrote in her letter to the Premier.

The woman said she hoped that giving inmates a political voice might lead to a future improvement in prisoner wellbeing.