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.
- Prisoner advocate Debbie Kilroy says political forums should be held in correctional centres
- A mother has written to the Premier detailing “brutal and inhumane” conditions at a Queensland prison
- Indigenous Australians are eight times more impacted by voting restrictions than non-Indigenous people
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.’
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.
‘A constant, ongoing failed system’
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.
The woman said she hoped that giving inmates a political voice might lead to a future improvement in prisoner wellbeing.
‘Time for a major rethink’
Debbie Kilroy, chief executive of Sisters Inside said voting restrictions had a disproportionate impact on the state’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.
“When we start cutting off certain groups of people in our community, then we have an imbalanced process to elect certain officials into positions of power,” Ms Kilroy said.
“So when we know that a high majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — about 35 per cent — are in prison and couldn’t have voted, then that’s detrimental to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vote.”
Her thoughts have been echoed in the findings of a University of Queensland research report, shown exclusively to the ABC, which calls for “a major rethink” to Australia’s “discriminatory” prisoner voting restrictions.
The report found Indigenous Australians were 12.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians as of 2016.
“For Indigenous people trying to participate in the democratic process, this is not merely a severe setback but also highlights the concerning discriminatory effect of voter disenfranchisement laws in Australia,” the report found.
Ms Kilroy, a criminal lawyer and former inmate, said Queensland prisons needed to improve inmates’ access to news, and called on political candidates to host forums in correctional centres.
“Politicians get off easy with regards to criminalising and imprisoning people, but they don’t actually have to address people affected by that,” she said.
“This will allow politicians to be questioned about their policies and be informed about the impact of their policies on people’s lives.”
In a statement, the Liberal National Party made their opposition to the move clear.
“Unlike Labor, who are soft on crime, currying favour with people who have broken Queensland law is not a priority for the LNP,” the statement read.
In a statement, the Department of Corrective Services said under government guidelines, political candidates were unable to use prisons for electioneering purposes.
“Prisoners have access to free-to-air television and newspapers, which is considered a sufficient means by which prisoners may access information on candidates,” the department said.
A spokesperson for the Attorney-General, Yvette D’ath told the ABC there were “no current plans to expand the eligibility to include prisoners serving sentences of more than three years”.
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