On Voting Behind Bars: Whose Side Are You On?

by Dr. Filomin Candaliza-Gutierrez

Based on the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) Resolution 9371 promulgated in March 6, 2012, an amended resolution based on earlier versions in 2010, persons behind bars can vote. Persons accused of crime that are 18 years old and above and awaiting trial or serving prison terms of less one year were allowed to register last year and in the coming May 2013 elections to exercise their rights to vote. Even convicted offenders whose criminal cases are on appeal and have not yet received final judgment have also been granted such privilege.  

This means more than half or around 48,000 of about 72,000 detainees in jails under the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) all over the country can vote in the coming elections. In addition to this number but in lesser proportion, around 3000 or some 8 percent of about 36,000 convicts in various Philippines prisons under the Bureau of Corrections are also qualified to vote.

Inmates are acutely aware of their public rejection and always suspicious of having been “abandoned by the state”. Inmates have wryly opined that they are sometime led to think that the only way they would see the “outside world” is when they are released as corpses long after they have been served their sentences. Inmates infamously suffer what prison sociologist Gresham Sykes regarded as the greatest “pain of imprisonment”: the loss one’s moral status as bona fide member society. The revocation of rights to suffrage symbolizes the offenders’ “expulsion” from the “polis”, the denial of their right to participate in the political community.  

Thus, detainee voting was mighty good news for inmates in jails and prisons. They eagerly seized the opportunity offered by the COMELEC in order to reclaim their membership to free society. Exercising the right to vote represents some restoration of lost moral citizenship in the immediate sense. From a farther viewpoint, the right suggests that despite their incarceration, they can perhaps impact state policies and influence the contours of the political climate of the country.

In general and understandably so, the public has no sympathy to the criminal offender. For instance, strong public reaction against special privileges given to inmates has been aired in the media. The release of noted or “celebrity” inmates have drawn flak from the public even after they have, in fact, been legally eligible for parole or release.  In short, expressive, even punitive justice, the notion that criminal offenders have to suffer for their crimes and be divested of their citizenship rights seems to be the default public opinion despite the rehabilitative ideals officially proffered by our criminal justices system and acknowledged in formal public discourse.

However, our laws compel us to follow the presumption of innocence before anyone is proven criminally guilty, extend the right to vote to detainees awaiting trial and sentencing, and restore such previously revoked rights to convicted offenders whose cases have yet to be decided with finality. Thus, though unpopular to many quarters, extending the democratic right to participate to those behind bars is inevitable.

The resolution could very well be an unwelcome development for groups adopting a strict view against criminal offenders such as advocacy groups focused on victims’ rights while a sign of advancement for the advocates of the rights of inmates. So far, there has been no huge public debate on the issue of inmate voting has taken place. But should it erupt, there is risk of oversimplifying the dilemma into a question of, Whose side are your on? The victims’ side or the offenders’ side?

Apart from civil society organizations (that do not run for public office), only several party blist groups have advocated the rights of incarcerated individuals, i.e. the right to speedy processing of their cases, improvement of the conditions of our severely congested jails and prisons, and access to family visits among many other basic and immediate concerns. But for typical local politicians or even national electoral candidates the “crime issue” is often an arena for visceral campaign rhetoric, such as “the community must be safely protected from growing criminality,” “criminality scares away investors from coming to the country,” and “new means of deterring and controlling crime must be invented.”

It has been good business for politicians to conjure a perpetual sense of crisis against crime. A political candidate or political party advocating pro-inmate reforms wields a weapon worse than a double-edged sword. While an anti-crime slogan and advocacy of victims rights are a sure bet, as many politicians have gained popularity riding on these “platforms”, advocacy of offender (detainee or convict) rights is its opposite. Like a reverse-blade sword that has its sharpened side on the opposite of the striking side, running a campaign premised on the better treatment of “criminal offenders” will be met with fatal unpopularity at the polls, especially sa laya (outside prison). At best, the advocacy of, say, bettering the condition of jails by allotting public funds to their construction, will be met with zero or low “return of investment” as it is a sure drain of the national or local budget allocation.

There are three angles on detainee voting that compel watching out for in the coming elections in relation to detainee voting. The first is on how inmates would interpret and play out to their advantages the opportunity to exercise the right to vote. This point might be of interest only to academics, but it may appeal to the local units where marginal differences in number of votes can matter because many inmates registered in the localities where they are detained. Add this to the potential of inmates convincing their family members to vote as they would and the numbers can spell greater difference.

The second angle has to do with how the incarcerated population, as a “vulnerable population” constituting a marginalized group susceptible to mechanisms of authority in return for privileges taken-for-granted in free society, for example, access to privacy and freedom of movement. While some inmates have expressed hopeful anticipation to flex their political agency muscles as members of the electorate, a few inmates have sounded off a mixture of anxiety and resignation over how their votes would easily be “brokered to the highest bidder anyway.” To see this happening would be the realization of the true exploitation of the disenfranchised group of persons unable to actively monitor their votes.

The third and most compelling angle has to do with how local and national political candidates would court inmate votes. This angle can reveal the kinds of promises they would brandish in response to issues that will surely be raised by this specific sort of constituency: speedier legal processing, early release, clemency, and access to basic provisions of space and decent subsistence. Such pronouncements from politicians would reveal how they would balance the victim-versus-offender discourse before the inmate society and before the free society. Somehow, it might reveal how our default political stance on crime and punishment, (i.e. we should be tough on crime and criminals), stands against our rational but contrived ideal statements about crime, (i.e. jails are meant for humane safekeeping of persons accused of crime, and prisons are meant to provide rehabilitation to convicts and prepare them for reintegration to society).

How political candidates will handle themselves in winning the votes of inmates will give some indication whether or not, as criminologist David Garland suggests, today’s the rehabilitative ideal of prison systems has declined in favor of society’s return to the punitive and expressive justice views that reigned in the past.

Even before the start of the campaign period, inmates have reported that political candidates, especially local contenders, have started to make their presence felt inside the prison compounds (nagparamdam na). Now that it has finally opened, the political ball game that needs watching is not always in the open courts of free society but in the confined spaces of jails and prisons. The strategies and maneuvers that the players employ in the inmates’ home court can possibly say something important about our culture on crime and punishment.

Filomin Candaliza-Gutierrez, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology in the University of the Philippines-Diliman. Her work has been published in the International Handbook of Criminology and other prestigious journals. 

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