As of 1994, convicted people are no longer stripped of their civil rights. In principle, the majority of prisoners retain their right to vote. However, only 2% of them were able to vote during the last presidential elections. Incarceration prevents many prisoners from exercising this right.
The Robin des lois organisation has proposed a plan to fix it.
François Korber 1, is the co-founder of the organisation and the leader of this initiative. He agreed to answer Prison Insider’s questions.
Born in Paris in 1952, he used to serve a long sentence. ↩
We also have “honourable correspondents” behind bars
Prison Insider: Can you tell us the goal of the organisation, Robin des lois, since you are its founder?
François Korber. The organisation was cofounded in 2009. It aims to defend prisoners’ rights, either directly, or by giving prisoners themselves tools to do so. It may also be done by referring them to competent and affordable lawyers, if necessary.
Over the years, we have developed a good network of lawyers, legal experts, teachers, and friends…
We also have “honourable correspondents” behind bars. We think it is very important to hear from the prisoners themselves when given the opportunity. For example, when journalists prepare a story, we put them in contact with inmates who have cell phones 1. This makes the articles more interesting. But we must take the necessary precautions and have the approval of the participants. For example, we advocate for legislation governing the use of cell phones by prisoners. I think it is inevitable, and we need to keep up with the times. Prisons existed well before cell phones did and prisons must conform. Sure, this could facilitate prison escapes. But well-planned prison escapes already exist, despite prisoners not having cell phones. As well, inmates and guards could use these phones to blackmail each other. But if inmates are foolish with their phones, they will be prosecuted for making threats, just as someone on the outside would be. This empowers inmates. It is easier for us, and it is easier for the truth.
1:I would like to emphasise the double meaning of “cell” in “cell phone”. Obviously this double meaning is somewhat interesting.
If we allow voting in prisons, there will be an even stronger presence of the Republic in the prison world, and this will clear a path for reintegration.
PI. On 6 March 2018, Emmanuel Macron committed to granting and organising the right to vote in prison. Where are we now with the European elections just a few months away?
FK. Civil rights have stopped declining since 1994. Consequently, people still have their rights, unless they are specifically stripped of them by the courts (for example, for terrorism or public procurement fraud).
However, the fundamental right to vote, which is enshrined in the Constitution, is completely ignored by prisons.
The administrative procedures are far too complex, so prisoners have a hard time starting a proceeding. The only possible solutions are proxy voting and authorised leave from prison, which is hardly ever granted for this reason. The few that make such a request, are often refused due to organisational limitations.
Prison environments keep inmates from exercising their right to vote. The Constitutional Council reminded us during their 2017 observations that only 2% of prisoners were able to vote in the last elections.
If we allow voting in prisons, there will be an even stronger presence of the Republic in the prison world, and this will clear a path for reintegration. Poland and Denmark had no problems installing voting stations in their prisons.
We are, therefore, happy that Mr Macron is making progress in promoting prison voting.
Now, onto the content. At the end of 2018, a government project was presented as an amendment. It was submitted to the Senate the day before the opening of the Justice Act debates, but was never discussed. The project was on prisoner voting rights for the European elections. Inmates would vote by proxy voting in a special virtual office in Paris.
In principle, this has advanced the fight we have been engaged in for years. However, at this stage, nothing concrete is planned. We do not know how the vote will be held, nor to whom the ballot is supposed to be turned in… All the specialists in the prison world feel like this project is technocratic and unrealistic. We all know that it is common for prisoners to not know how to write. Furthermore, no matter how honest the prison administration is, no inmate
Today, we have two projects before us: the incomplete government one and our project. Ours is ready, complete, and quickly implementable with a decree written by Frédéric Thiriez 1.
Since 2013, Robin des lois and their partners have been actively campaigning for the installation of voting stations in prisons. Our project can be easily realised. In contrast, today, the government project has stalled due to the delays in the Justice Act vote. 2. To me, it seems impossible. For our part, if in eight days the Minister of Internal Affairs says “let’s go”, we will all have the documents ready, prepared by an “informal collective”:
Sergio Coronado, former member of the Law Commission of the National Assembly
Martine Herzog-Evans, Criminal Justice Professor at the University of Reims and sentence enforcement specialist
Emmanuel Ludot, defence lawyer at Reims
Jean-Christophe Ménard, Lawyer specialised in electoral law, University Lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris. He is a pillar of the collective. For the most part, he starts proceedings, and is a defender of preserving pre-existent laws.
Éric Péchillon, Public law Professor at the University of Rennes and specialist in prison matters
Frédéric Thiriez, former Master of Requests of the Council of State, lawyer at the Council of State and at the Court of Cassation. He wrote the decree.
It is a matter of installing voting stations in our prisons that are no different to those that already operate in municipalities [across France] and in numerous countries. But the law must not be changed. The law must be applied. That means applying article R40 from the Electoral Code. This article gives the prefects the annual authority to create or remove a station with the relevant voters list. It is actually quite simple. Jean-Christophe Ménard had the great idea of applying the law. Our procedure proved that sure enough, article R40 can be applied to prisons too.
**But what is a prison voting station? Maybe I did not explain it well enough… A voting station is a room, like a nursery or a gymnasium. It is a prefect’s legal creation. We chose the second Clermont-Ferrand station to be a prison and the third one to be Saint-Joseph’s Nursery School. It is really as easy as that. It is a legal creation, with a list that goes along with it. **
We offer to install the voting stations for two to three hours (the time it takes for each inmate to vote, if they wish to). Of course, assessors and the town’s councillors come and man the station, the voting booth, ballot box, table, and list. All of this can be easily done. The Minister of Justice decides whether voting stations are installed in a prison or not. All he or she has to do is send a letter to the Prison Governor: “You need to get in touch with the Prefect, bring in the ballot boxes, issue permits, and have them vote, etc.”. It is not rocket science.
former Master of Requests of the Council of State, lawyer at the Council of State and at the Court of Cassation ↩
this will not be voted on before mid-February. Then, there will be an appeal to the Constitutional Council at the end of March. We must quickly issue a decree and release a newsletter in April. This will enact proxy voting. But this seems like wishful thinking. ↩
Voting, a strong motivator against exclusion. A strong motivator for integration.
PI. What does this vote represent on a more global scale?
FK. Society incarcerates a certain number of people (wrongfully or rightfully) with the idea of creating good citizens or making them good citizens once again. We believe that if given the chance to vote, they will be able to participate in civic life. This will eventually become a strong motivator to reintegrate into society. We often have people who are already very excluded in our “prisons of poverty” 1. They do not vote nor do their families. We strongly believe that if the prison population starts voting, this will be a strong motivator against exclusion. It will encourage integration, adherence to the Republic’s values, and inclusion in the French Republic.
We think that a lot of the marginalised youth rotting away in our prisons can be motivated to live a better life if they vote and take an interest in democracy. For those who say “Prison crowding is much more important”, all I have to say to them is “Governments will start taking an interest in prisoners and prisons when the 100,000 people who are annually sent to prison start voting. The right and left wings of the government will become interested in what is happening in our prisons and will finally take action to change the system.
according to sociologist Loïc Wacquant’s book entitled, Prisons of Poverty, (1999). ↩
Statements collected by Anouk Mousset Translated by Kelly Field Edited by Amy King
Robin des lois
The Robin des lois association defends prisoner’s rights and civil liberties. They are taking steps to prevent juvenile delinquency and repeat offending, and help with reintegration.
Here is a list of documents and articles that you can look at for more information on this subject. These articles are not available in English nor in Spanish, but you can check out their French version.
Prisons: why do so little prisoners vote in the presidential elections?
April 2017 / l’OBS Read the french article.
Prisons: “I was able to go vote and I was seen as a visionary”.
April 2017 / Libération Read the french article. Listen to Karim.
“J’ai fait ces démarches pour déjà me sentir exister dans la société”
“Je me sens fière d’avoir pu voter et d’avoir pu participer à un scrutin avec un enjeu pour notre pays.”
The presidential elections seen in a different light: voting behind bars!
April 2017 / Alter 1fo Read the french article.