While there is a Soul in Prison, I am not Free

Much has been said about whether prisoners have the right to vote. The European Courts have declared that a blanket ban is unlawful. David Cameron has said that the prospect of having to give prisoners the vote makes him sick. The British Courts have refused to take a side, simultaneously making a declaration that the current system is not compatible with either European or British Law, and refusing to actually do anything about it. Instead they claim that the Government promising to review it (but then never getting round to doing that) is enough.

I won’t wade into that debate (just yet), but I would like to highlight an example from The States which I think says a lot about what prisoners have to offer the political system.

You may be aware that some American states actually disenfranchise convicts for life. Famously, many black men in Florida were not allowed to vote in the presidential elections of 2000 even though they had no criminal records on the grounds that their names were similar to the names of ex-convicts. Not the same, but similar. But this has not always been the case. In fact, one individual actually ran for president from prison and did surprisingly well.

Eugene Victor Debbs was an American union leader at the turn of the twentieth century. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) in 1875 and was elected Grand Secretary, Treasurer and editor of the BLF’s monthly organ, Firemen’s Magazine, all within five years. In 1884, he also stood as a democrat for the Indians’ General Assembly and was subsequently elected.

In 1893 Debs stood down as Brotherhood Grand Secretary and founded the American Railway Union (ARU), one of the first industrial unions in the United States. The following year, the union struck when the Pullman Company cut workers wages by 28% and, despite reservations that the union was still too weak to win, Debs supported the membership’s decision and took part in the strike.

As a result, the New York Times called Debs “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race” and the strike came to be known as ‘Debs’ Rebellion’. The U.S. Government subsequently took out an injunction to halt the strike on the grounds that it was interfering with the transmission of U.S. Mail, and President Cleveland sent in the Army to ensure that the strike did not continue. In the process of breaking the strike, thirteen strikers were killed and Debs was sent to federal prison.

Whilst in jail at Woodstock, Illinois, Debs received letters and reading material from socialists around the country and he, when he was released in 1895, declared himself a committed socialist. He assisted the American Railway Union to merge with the Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth to create the Social Democracy of America and, in 1900, Debs ran unsuccessfully for President, receiving 87,945 votes (0.6% of the popular vote).

Soon after, the Social Democracy of America split and Debs founded the Social Democratic Party, running for President again in 1904 and receiving 402,810 votes (2.98%) finishing third. In 1908 Debs received 420,852 votes (2.83%) and, in 1912, he received 901,551 votes (5.99%).

Meanwhile, Debs helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or ‘the Wobblies’ and proved himself as a gifted orator. Heywood Brown quoted a fellow socialist in his eulogy of Debs, saying “That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around, I believe it myself.” But Debs himself once said, “I am not a Labour Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for Moses to lead you out of this Capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”

However, in 1918, Debs made a speech encouraging resistance to the military draft of World War I and he was subsequently arrested and charged with ten counts of sedition. At his trial, Debs spoke for two hours in his own defence but was found guilty and spoke again at his sentencing. Heywood Brown described Debs’ speech as “one of the most beautiful and moving passages in the English language. He was for that one afternoon touched with inspiration. If anyone told me that tongues of fire danced upon his shoulders as he spoke, I would believe it.”

Debs said the following as part of his speech:

Your Honour, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the form of our present government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in the change of both but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means…

Your Honour, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realise that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own…

Your Honour, years ago I recognised my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and whilst there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Following his jailing, Debs ran for President from his prison cell at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He received 913,664 votes (3.9%) which remains the all-time highest number of votes for an SDP candidate. Whilst in prison, Debs also wrote a series of columns about the prison system and wrote his only book, Walls and Bars, which was published posthumously.

In 1921 the Attorney General proposed to President Wilson that he grant Debs a presidential pardon on the grounds of deteriorating health, and free him on Lincoln’s birthday. The President returned the paperwork after writing “Denied” across it. However, later that year, Harding was elected president and commuted Debs’ sentence to time served – but refused to pardon him.

When Debs left Atlanta Penitentiary, the other prisoners sent him off with a “roar of cheers”. He visited the White House on his way home an was received by the President. When he reached home, he was greeted by a crowd of 50,000.

In 1924, Debs was nominated for the Nobel peace prize on the grounds that he “started to work actively for peace during World War I, mainly because he considered the war to be in the interests of Capitalism”. He died of heart failure in 1926.

So I ask, if one honest man of principle, can stand for position of U.S. President from a federal prison cell, and come third behind only the might of the Republicans and Democrats, what possible logic can justify the blanket ban on British prisoners casting a vote?

Prisoners have something to contribute. Something to give, something to say. It’s time society listened.

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