This blog is the first in a series marking the tenth anniversary of the UN Bangkok Rules, covering a range of issues affecting women in criminal justice systems worldwide. In this blog, Tríona Lenihan, PRI’s Policy and International Advocacy Manager, looks at the global female prison population, highlighting key trends and issues to address in the coming decade.
On 21 December 2020, we mark the tenth anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules).
The adoption of the Bangkok Rules in 2010 was indeed a milestone for women in contact with the law and all those working with and for women in criminal justice systems. Over the past ten years, Penal Reform International and many other organisations and institutions have undertaken programmes in numerous countries to raise awareness of the Bangkok Rules. We have sought to change mindsets of criminal justice actors from judges to prison staff, probation, and detention monitors, and in many cases, we have seen positive change and acknowledgement that adaptations are needed to meet the needs of women in criminal justice systems.
There are excellent examples of programmes and initiatives to create more effective criminal justice systems that respect women’s rights, often focused on improving the treatment of women in prison through training of prison officers and other key stakeholders, and the development of innovative rehabilitation programmes and non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment for women.
Implementation of the Bangkok Rules around the world, however, remains piecemeal. One grave indicator of this is that the number of women in prison worldwide continues to rise, in spite of the Bangkok Rules requiring an increase in non-custodial measures and sanctions. PRI has carried out new analysis of figures available on the World Prison Brief, which show an increase in the global female prison population of 105,000 since the Bangkok Rules were adopted a decade ago. This amounts to a 17% increase and brings the global female prison population to an estimated 741,000.
The number of women in prison has increased in the past decade in most regions: across Asia there has been a dramatic 50% increase from 207,000 to 310,000 women in prison; in Central and South America, there has been a 19% increase to 86,000, although the average proportion of women within the entire prison population has decreased; and there has been a 24% increase in Africa to 38,000 women in prison. Available figures show the number of women in prison in the Caribbean have remained constant at 2,000, and in Europe have decreased by 29% to 85,000.
This concerning trend demonstrates the need to redouble efforts in exposing why so many women are swept into the criminal justice system in the first place. Part of this is the ineffectiveness, as well as the injustice, of criminalising and imprisoning women in so many contexts for behaviours that should not be criminalised. This includes petty offences, low level drug-related offences like possession of small amounts, and ‘status offences’ that only criminalise women like abortion, witchery or sorcery. The growing numbers are also an indication of some countries taking harsh approaches to women who commit offences in a context of violence, poverty and discrimination.
At the core of the Bangkok Rules, and all other international standards protecting people in prison including the Nelson Mandela Rules, and those serving sanctions in the community like the Tokyo Rules, is a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration to enable people to lead law-abiding and self-supporting lives. Globally, there has been a movement in recent decades towards an increasingly rehabilitative approach to all aspects of the prison regime. But women, who constitute a small minority in prison systems, still face barriers in accessing programmes and services in prisons that meet their specific needs. Where there are programmes, often they are heavily gendered and do not cater for their particular backgrounds and needs.
There is no shortage of challenges, and especially now. Ten years on from the adoption of the Bangkok Rules, we face a global pandemic where we have seen women somewhat overlooked in strategies for prisons. Women in prison have faced increased hardship during the pandemic as a result of changes to prison regimes that fail to account of their specific needs. In some prisons, women have gone without sanitary pads and other essential items, either because resources were redirected or because they are often provided by families or local charities who could no longer visit. Moments of extreme anxiety and depression for women in prison are often linked to separation from children, so cutting off in-person contact with children can have a significant impact on women’s mental health.
Release mechanisms in some countries made provisions for pregnant or breastfeeding women or those with children living in prison with them, but beyond this limited segment, many countries failed to include women adequately in release schemes – even though women are often in prison for non-violent offences and pose little danger to society. Some release schemes excluded drug-related offences, which disproportionately impacts women in countries where higher proportions of women than men are in prison for low level drug offences.
This demonstrates the real need for renewed energy, greater engagement, and bold solutions to tackle all of the issues that women in criminal justice systems face. There needs to be a system-wide approach which includes legal reforms and changes in sentencing, adaptations in alternatives to imprisonment and gender-specific treatment in detention. PRI will continue to find bold solutions together and we look forward to working with partners over the next decade to implement the Bangkok Rules so every woman that comes into contact with the criminal justice system can have their rights better protected.
We are not alone in calling for action. Marking the tenth anniversary of the Bangkok Rules, a joint civil society Call to Action was issued by over 80 organisations, calling for full implementation of the Rules. A group of UN and regional human rights leaders with mandates related to detention and women’s rights have similarly called on all States to implement the Bangkok Rules in full.
A note on figures:
The figures cited in this blog are based on those provided by the World Prison Brief, prisonstudies.org, correct as at 12 November 2020 and rounded to the nearest thousand. They are calculated using the most recently available prison population figures, and those available in or as close to 2010 as possible.