Earlier this week the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) brought together 57 participating states and a multitude of civil society organisations. One of the recurring themes in the deliberations on Tuesday afternoon was how violence against women in all corners of the globe is a barrier to achieving real gender equality. I heard how governments, organisations and institutions engage to provide better protection for victims of domestic violence and hold perpetrators to account. However, the discussion did nearly pass without any mention of women in prison – a group who are disproportionately victims of violence prior to, and while imprisoned. (Read PRI’s statement to the OSCE on this issue)
The little attention dedicated to women prisoners to date has meant there is a lack of research and data on what their background and specific needs are. Information on women offenders is relatively scarce in the large majority of countries around the world.
The next day however their plight was on the agenda at PRI’s side-event, where our new report Who are women prisoners?: Survey results from Armenia and Georgia was presented. The research, inspired by the UN Bangkok Rules,* serves as a bleak reminder that governments are putting mothers into prison for non-violent and minor crimes, releasing them with little support and ignoring the fact they are often victims too.
44 per cent of women surveyed in the two countries told us their biggest support need post-release is with childcare and family reunification – not surprising given 8 in 10 of the women are mothers.
An average of 6 per cent of women in Georgian prisons are convicted of violent crimes.
Facts and figures like these are needed to develop policies that appropriately respond to the needs of women prisoners and to increase the chance that they can lead law-abiding life following release. Our panel explored other ways to fill this research gap and tell the stories of women in prison.
Monitoring bodies have a crucial role in drawing attention to women prisoners’ needs, in the design of strategies and keeping the spotlight shining. Parliamentary enquiries can help raise public awareness and build support for community-based alternatives to prison for women. The UK’s Parliamentary Enquiry on ‘women in the criminal justice system who have particular vulnerabilities’ in 2007 (the so-called ‘Corston Report’) raised public awareness and accelerated progress towards the use of community-based alternatives for women offenders. Six years on there is a new strategy and the establishment of a Ministerial Board on the issue.
It seems that taking a step back to understand who is in prison is the first step needed for building a penal system that responds to all who are in contact with the criminal justice system without discrimination – including based on gender.
*The UN Bangkok Rules were adopted in December 2010 unanimously at the General Assembly. The 70 rules give guidance to actors including policy makers, legislators, sentencing authorities and prison staff to on the one hand reduce unnecessary imprisonment of women, and on the other hand to meet the needs of women who are imprisoned.. With financial support from the UK Government, PRI has developed a Toolbox on the UN Bangkok Rules to assist in their implementation.