In April 2016, the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru (INPE) approved a resolution to adopt and implement a new Protocol for the treatment of women prisoners based on the UN Bangkok Rules, one of the first countries to have done so. Maria Eva Dorigo, an independent researcher who worked with the INPE on the Protocol, explains its significance.
When I entered a female prison for the first time in Lima (Perú) in 2009, to do the field work for my Masters degree thesis, I knew immediately how important it was to disseminate information about the situation of women in prison and to debunk myths built around the prisoners and prisons. Around the world, women´s particular needs are not taken into account in sentencing or in treatment in prison. Most women in prison do not pose a threat to society and statistically they are unlikely to re-enter prisons after their release. Minimum sentencing for non-violent drug-related crimes, compounds the difficulty these women and their families face, many of whom are single mothers from low-income neighborhoods.
I also had the opportunity to collaborate on a project with the INPE (National Penitentiary Institute of Peru) and the International Committee for the Red Cross to diagnose the situation of women in Peruvian prisons and to create a new Protocol for the treatment of women prisoners, based on the Bangkok Rules and the findings of my research. (Focus groups with women prisoners were conducted in 5 different prisons nationwide.)
The Bangkok Rules or the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2010, constitute a great advancement towards the recognition of women prisoners’ needs. Those seventy rules that comprise the document not only talk about fair living conditions for women who are held in prison and their children, but also express the need to implement alternatives to incarceration for women offenders “by incorporating specific provisions on gender-sensitive non-custodial measures and sanctions, the consideration of gender-specific circumstances in sentencing”. (1)
The implementation of a protocol for the treatment of women in prison has few precedents in the world. It may be due to the fact that these Rules were adopted fairly recently and governments do not implement change as fast as reformers would like. It is important to note that interest and knowledge about the Rules is growing globally, but unfortunately to date we cannot talk about worldwide implementation of the rules in penitentiary or justice systems settings.
Therefore, I celebrate the fact that Peru has approved a binding document to be implemented in all correctional facilities called “Atención integral y Tratamiento Penitenciario para Mujeres Procesadas o Sentenciadas en Establecimientos Penitenciarios y Medio Libre” (2). This text reveals the diversity of women who inhabit Peruvian prisons and highlights the urgency of meeting their diverse needs. Peruvian prisons are populated with Indigenous women who do not speak Spanish, foreigners, elderly women, women with disabilities, LGTBI people, women infected with HIV or other chronic illnesses, women with mental health problems, women under the “régimen penitenciario especial” (3) pregnant women, and also women who live with children under three years of age. So, in spite of the existence of inter-institutional agreements, this document also highlights the importance of involving other governmental and non-governmental organizations in financing, following up and direct provision of services for women prisoners.
One example to illustrate the importance of this document is that under the section in Prison Security which provides detailed procedures for how body cavity searches must be conducted and under what circumstances they can take place. There are many reports of abuse by correctional officers when conducting these searches. The Protocol increases the accountability of correctional officers and other authorities to document and to report and justify their actions.
This document is a step forward for women prisoners’ rights; however, there are issues like sexual and reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTI community that are not well represented in this document. Moreover, the Office of the Head of Correctional Treatment is the only body charged with evaluating compliance with the Protocol, as well as proposing modifications or updates. Peruvian prisons would be better served if an independent body had some oversight into the implementation to avoid conflicts of interest.
It is important to note that most of the points in this document do not involve a substantial increase in the correctional budget, but instead require political will and understanding of the specific needs of women in prison. This is no doubt an important step forward, but it will be important to track its proper implementation and it is by no means the last action that will be needed to guarantee the rights of women prisoners.
- Penal Reform International, Women in criminal justice systems and the added value of the UN Bangkok Rules, 2015.
- Comprehensive care and penitentiary treatment for prosecuted or sentenced women in correctional facilities and post penitentiary service.
- Régimen penitenciario especial is a prison regime with more restrictions than the regular regime and is imposed on women convicted of terrorism charges (mainly belonging to Sendero Luminoso and MRTA).
The Protocol (only in Spanish) can be found here.