Avid readers of this PRI blog will be well aware of the UN Bangkok Rules on women offenders and prisoners and their importance for women in the criminal justice system worldwide. But how do international human rights standards translate to national criminal justice systems and can they be easily implemented at a national level? Women in Prison as an organisation provides practical and emotional support to women affected by the criminal justice system in England. We support women in prison as well as in the community and our support work on the ground informs our campaigning work. As an organisation working exclusively with women and solely in England, we have an interest in how the Bangkok Rules can be applied to the women we work with, not just in theory but also in practice. Our report ‘The State of the Estate’ first evaluated this in 2013 and again in 2015.
What are the Bangkok Rules and why are they needed globally?
To re-cap, the Bangkok Rules (officially, the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders) are a set of UN guidelines concerned with the treatment (including the rights) of women affected by the criminal justice system. When they came into place at the end of 2010, for the first time gender-specific guidelines for women supplemented general standards for all prisoners. The Bangkok Rules apply to all women prisoners, whether remanded or sentenced, throughout all stages of their contact with the criminal justice system, including before sentencing and after release. This is important because it means they deal not only with prison conditions but also with women’s resettlement in the community upon release from prison.
In England, there were already various guidance documents in place outlining the gender-specific needs of women prisoners but it is very valuable to have these further validated and re-focused through international standards. When applying international standards to national systems, some details may be less relevant to the UK prison systems. However, when reading the Bangkok Rules it is striking how the plight of women in the criminal justice system is universal. Across the globe, women are affected by the same issues and trauma such as domestic and sexual violence, mental ill health, substance misuse, homelessness and poverty. In all societies, it is the most disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable women that find themselves affected by the criminal justice system.
What has been the impact of the Bangkok Rules in the UK and what still remains to be done?
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, the independent body monitoring prison standards in England and Wales, are now using a women-specific expectations document based on the Bangkok Rules. Until this came into place, the Inspectorate was using a generic set of expectations for all adult prisons. The expectations for women now differ from previously with a recognition that different gendered needs require different provision. It also recognises that where women experience consistently poorer outcomes on a specific issue, this warrants a greater focus. Lastly, the incidence or nature of particular issues in women’s prisons, such as victimisation, bullying, children and families, merit a different emphasis or approach.
The Prison Inspectorate’s adoption of the Bangkok Rules in their prison monitoring is a significant development on the path towards implementing the Bangkok Rules in prison policy and practice and a fantastic way of incorporating international human rights standards in the day-to-day running of prisons on a national level. By very definition, though, the Prison Inspectorate only assesses conditions in prison and is, as such, of great value to women serving custodial sentences. However, a crucial point about the Bangkok Rules that must not be forgotten is that its fundamental underlying principle is the preference for non-custodial measures to deal with women’s offending. As such, the Bangkok Rules consider alternatives to imprisonment and discuss community solutions for women who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. When discussing the Bangkok Rules and their implementation, we must not lose focus on the bigger picture, namely this non-custodial sentencing element. In this sense, the implementation of the Bangkok Rules is not only a matter of concern for prison governors and staff but also for policy makers and the judiciary. Therefore, until there are robust community sentencing alternatives firmly in place instead of custodial sentencing, and more crucially, until the root causes of women’s offending are being addressed by policy makers, there is still some way to go until we can say that the UK is complying fully with the Bangkok Rules.
Women in Prison will continue to monitor the UK’s compliance with the Bangkok Rules in our bi-annual report the State of the Estate. In the UK, Prison Reform Trust’s programme “Transforming lives – reducing women’s imprisonment” also has as one of its key campaign strands for the UK to improve compliance with the Bangkok Rules. Internationally, Penal Reform International’s tireless work on the Bangkok Rules goes on. The work that the third sector puts into influencing policy makers, prison officials, the judiciary and others involved with women in the criminal justice system is important as, in the words of Penal Reform International, many of the Bangkok Rules do not require additional resources for their implementation, but simply a change in awareness, attitude and practices.
Download Women in Prison’s 2015 ‘State of the Estate’ report which assesses the women’s prisons in England against the Bangkok Rules