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Prisoners in Kenya and New Zealand, Unlike Counterparts in U.S., Win Right to Vote

by Derek Gilna

In August 2017, prisoners at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Kenya, along with other prisoners in the African nation, were allowed to vote in presidential elections for the first time. Offenders at the Kamiti facility patiently waited their turn to vote via a biometric system that scanned their hands before they could cast ballots.

Kenya adopted a new constitution in 2010, and civil rights advocates noted that prisoners were not barred from voting. Kituo Cha Sheria, a legal aid foundation, filed a petition to authorize voting within prisons; the petition was granted in 2013, but too late for prisoners to vote in that year’s election. So far, the franchise right is limited to presidential elections.

According to John Mwariri, a legal officer at Kituo Cha Sheria, “If you look at the law, it is very clear that every [Kenyan] citizen has the right to vote.” In contrast, virtually every person held in a state or federal prison in the U.S. is barred from voting while incarcerated, and many are disenfranchised even after their release. Only Maine and Vermont allow state prisoners to vote.

The head of the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Henry Kising’u, stated, “I’m very glad to see that they can exercise their constitutional right. They also feel that they are being treated as human and as citizens of this country. Voting is an exercise that makes you feel like you belong and that you are respected.”

Albert Kitur, one of the prisoners at Kamiti, was pleased to be casting his ballot. “I’m really happy today. It’s one of the most happiest days,” he said. “It’s a privilege, a great privilege.” Kitur noted that he and other prisoners had studied the news. “We are very connected. We have the television in our room, so after our duties, we go back to the residential block and watch the news. We have also permission to read newspapers.”

Kitur hopes that by exercising their right to vote, prisoners will be in a better position to advocate for other positive changes in Kenya’s criminal justice system, and perhaps even set an example for other countries that appear to focus more on punishment than on rehabilitation in their penal systems.

In related news, in May 2017 the Court of Appeal in New Zealand upheld a lower court’s finding that a law barring all prisoners from voting, enacted in 2010, violated their human rights under that nation’s Bill of Rights.

New Zealand’s Supreme Court agreed in August 2017 to hear the Crown’s appeal of that ruling. The government is arguing that the courts do not have jurisdiction to declare acts of Parliament inconsistent with the Bill of Rights. The case was filed in 2015 by Arthur William, a jailhouse lawyer who has served nearly 40 years, and four prisoners at the Christchurch Women’s Prison.



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