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Civil death, civic dignity: exploring dis/enfranchisement through art

Guest author Dr Bethany Schmidt writes about an exciting new art project

It is an old story by now…  

In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK’s blanket ban preventing all convicted prisoners from voting, irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offences, constituted a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a House of Commons debate in 2010, then Prime Minister David Cameron remarked, “It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison”. And here we are in 2022 and the UK continues to be the only country in Western Europe to maintain such an indiscriminate and punitive voting ban. Nothing has changed, right? Well, yes and no.  

Recently, Scotland and Wales have carried out public consultation to gauge the collective sentiment on this matter. In response, both countries are beginning to re-enfranchise some prisoners for local elections. This suggests there is a growing and shared understanding that inclusive practices will likely lead to better outcomes for everyone (though this process has not been without some resistance). However, this kind of public consultation – which includes the voices of those with lived experience of the criminal justice system – has not yet come to England. It remains unclear if the political will accurately represents the people’s will.  

I have recently launched a new project, Civic Dignity, which aims to explore and raise awareness of the experience of disenfranchisement (or ‘civil death’) through creative and narrative expression. The intention is to stimulate a public dialogue on prisoner voting rights and inclusive civic and political participation more broadly. Civil death refers to the suspended or diminished status of citizenship that occurs when a person goes to prison. It is an overlooked ‘pain’ of imprisonment and contradicts the stated aims of rehabilitation. Prisoners have described the feeling of disenfranchisement, whether they have ever voted before or not, as “another layer of exclusion” or “further rejection from society”. In other words, being barred from voting is symbolically and psychologically significant. Of course, many people feel politically excluded or disregarded even if they haven’t spent time in prison. This is a serious problem within our democracy.  

Civic dignity, in contrast to civil death, is about feeling and being treated as a community member worthy of respect and recognition, and with equal political standing. The public, generally, are not well informed about prisoner voting rights, or the arguments for or against disenfranchisement. Some believe that losing the right to vote acts as a deterrent to crime, though there is no evidence to support this claim. Some are unaware that disenfranchisement is practiced at all, whilst others have never really thought about it or its rationale. There are many questions left unanswered: What exactly is accomplished when prisoners are barred from voting? Is political disenfranchisement a reasonable or proportionate extension of the deprivation of liberty? Should citizenship and punishment be linked in this way? Why do most Western European countries (and many other nations) allow prisoners to vote but the UK does not? 

Join the conversation

Throughout 2022 I will be carrying out a series of engagement activities, in consultation with prisoners and members of the public. This includes a website where art, writings, and other creative expressions will be posted. An exhibition featuring submissions from both prisoners and the public will be displayed at an in-person exhibition toward the end of the year. I will also send updates (with photos) to InsideTime to ensure those inside can be part of the conversation. If your prison or organisation would like to host an event, get in touch. 

If you or someone you love is currently incarcerated, contact me about how submissions from the inside can be made. Although this project is based in the UK, it is open to prisoners everywhere as well as those who do not have UK citizenship (like myself). All creative expressions and forms are welcome! This includes but is not limited to spoken word or musical recordings; written texts like poetry, short stories, or personal reflections; drawings, paintings, murals, or mosaics; sculptures; textiles or knitted creations; or PowerPoint presentations or other digital designs. I encourage you to use the following statements as prompts for creative reflection: 

  • What does it feel like to be barred from voting (also known as ‘civil death’)?  
  • This is what civic dignity/being part of a community/voting means to me…
  • What is the relationship between citizenship and punishment? Should prisoners lose the right to vote? 
  • In what ways can incarcerated people be active citizens? What might this mean in prison and post-release? 
  • A famous reformer once said that prisons should aim to ‘make good citizens, not good prisoners’. Can prisons achieve this? What does this quote mean to you? What is the difference between a good citizen and a good prisoner? 
  • Some prisoners feel stigmatised (publicly shamed or stereotyped) or excluded from society. What can be done to make incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people feel more included, especially within their local communities? 
  • What happens to the health of a democracy when some people are formally or informally excluded from participating? 

For more information on how to contribute, please visit the website! 

The fine print

Submissions will not be accepted if they are derogatory or offensive. This includes art or writing that is racist, misogynistic, homophobic, or could be interpreted as harmful or threatening to others. If in doubt, please contact me in advance.  

All pieces should be original. 

Unless you specify otherwise, all work sent to me will be deemed eligible to be posted on the website or displayed at the art exhibition later this year.  

Only first names (no surnames) will be used to label the art. If you would prefer to use a pseudonym (a fictitious name), please let me know. 

For pieces that are easily posted (drawings, writings, small paintings, or sculptures), please send them to me without further delay! If your creation is too large, fragile, or awkward to send, please get in touch so we can find a solution. Individual and group submissions are welcome. I look forward to hearing from you! 

Purgator – submission from HMP Leyhill


My voice hasn’t gone, so why has my vote? – submission from HMP Stafford
Written by:

Dr Bethany Schmidt is Assistant Professor in Penology, Prisons Research Centre, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

Contact: Dr Bethany Schmidt, Institute of Criminology, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA.



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