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B Side, Politics

Polithinks — Out of Sight and Out of Box: Should Prisoners Vote?

What do you think: should prisoners be allowed to vote?

  • Folasayo Adigun
  • 11th January 2023

People are put in prisons for four different reasons – retribution (removing the freedom of prisoners is a way they pay for their crimes to society), incapacitation (so that they can no longer harm other people), deterrence (as a warning to others in the society who may want to be criminally minded) and rehabilitation (activities and programs in the prison that are hoped will change the prisoner into a better person). Whatever the purpose for anyone, it is no gainsaying that prisoners often have their rights limited; in some countries, that right includes the right to vote and be voted for. Some countries where prisoners cannot vote include the United Kingdom, Australia, Armenia, Bulgari, Georgia, Hungary and Russia. In some other countries like Ukraine, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Spain and Switzerland, prisoners can exercise the freedom to vote. 


In Nigeria, prisoners do not currently participate in the voting process. However, this disenfranchisement has come under immense legal dispute. For example, the VICTOR EMENUWE AND ORS V INDEPENDENT NATIONAL ELECTORAL COMMISSION (INEC) AND COMPTROLLER GENERAL OF NIGERIAN PRISONS in 2014 at the Federal High Court and 2018, at the Court of Appeal. 


As at 2020, the  prison population in Nigeria stood at 62,388 in 2018, the figure stood at its highest of 73, 631, while its lowest was in 2000, at 44,450. In the world, while China has the highest number of prisoners with about 1.69 million, the United States follows with about 1.68 million. While China is not a democracy, in the democratic United States, prisoners cannot vote.


The current prison population figure in Nigeria is only about 0.07 percent of the  95.5 million registered voters for the 2023 elections. Recent electoral results in Nigeria, and the margin of win, has proven that this number may not be too small to tilt the tide in an electoral race. For example, in the 2022, governorship election in Osun State, the candidate of the PDP won the candidate of the APC by 28, 344 votes. While the number of people in prison against the registered voters is almost negligible, the argument for prisoners to be allowed to vote hinges more on it (right to vote) being a human right. However, there are other arguments that posit that the human right to vote is forfeited upon committing a crime. 



Here are some of the arguments in favour and against prisoners voting:


In favour:


1. In some quarters, it has been argued that it is the fundamental and democratic rights of prisoners to vote in an election, because a democracy must take collective self-government seriously. Denying those locked behind bars that right is democracy failing in its principles.


2. It ca be further argued, in the Nigerian case, that given that most of the inmates in Nigerian prisons are yet to be tried ( a 2022 estimate puts the percentage of pre-trial inmates in Nigerian prisons as 69.4% of the prison population), they should be given the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, at least until they are convicted of the crimes they are charged for.


3. Furthermore, allowing those in prison to participate in civil activities like voting will help them value such freedom to the extent that it will make them not to engage in antisocial activities upon reentry into society.


4. Additionally, in the VICTOR EMENUWE AND ORS V INDEPENDENT NATIONAL ELECTORAL COMMISSION (INEC) AND COMPTROLLER GENERAL OF NIGERIAN PRISONS, the argument of the plaintiffs was that given that the right to vote is a cornerstone of democracy, it amounts to disenfranchisement if prisoners are not allowed to exercise this right, especially when such prisoners are not under any legal incapacity.




1. The prison is different, and prisoners in prison are different from offenders who are not yet in prison; their disenfranchisement being ideal punishment for them. Hence, people in prison deserve to lose their right to vote.


2. By disenfranchising the prisoners, the state is only the vehicle through which the citizens also negate the right of the imprisoned to participate in political governance.


3. Furthermore, there are people who contend that prisoners, by virtue of breaking the law, are not worthy to be in position to influence the laws that will govern society as they cannot be trusted to make the right choices.


While the arguments for and against prisoner voting are valid, the fact that in Nigeria, there are more people yet to be pronounced prisoners, but are still in prisons, is a strong argument to favour granting rights to vote to prisoners. Hence, Nigerian prisoners (most of whom have not been convicted) should not necessarily be out of sight and away from the ballot.

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