This is one of a series of posts by Jo Baker on her research last year among women’s prisons and prison communities in Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia, with DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture, now published as a report.
Although women face many risks and problems in prison, they may be less likely to complain, seek information, make requests or challenge authority compared to men. This may be coloured, among other factors, by a particularly restrictive background, a desire to protect children with them in detention or like a great many detained women, survival of sustained domestic violence. And for those who do try, as our study found, the information may not be within reach, relevant to their situation or delivered in a way that they understand.
And yet although gendered barriers to information (and complaint – see my post on Safety and Security) can block the full spectrum of human rights for imprisoned women, this issue gets little to no attention in advocacy, policy, or even in international standards, such as the Standard Minimum Rules, or more recently elaborated Bangkok Rules, for women prisoners.
“All I knew is that two policewomen came to take me. I asked why, and they said, ‘we’ll just go for a drive’. I only realized [my fate] when we arrived at the prison.” ― Inmate, Jordan
During our research among women in five countries, few inmates spoke about information as an explicit concern, and yet the theme flowed strongly throughout our conversations. There was the woman in the Philippines who chose to give birth among strangers in a very small, ill-equipped prison clinic, because of rumours among inmates that she would be shackled during labour in a government hospital. (This was in a jail where women are discouraged from approaching staff except through a nominated senior inmate). There were the women in Jordan, many incarcerated for their own ‘protection’ after breaking social codes, who spoke of intense isolation and increasingly desperate measures such as hunger strikes and other self harm, just to get attention and information. “The hardest part was the question of leaving,” said one ex-prisoner, who had been indefinitely detained for years, with very little information. “I once saw a gap in the roof – a hole very far up. I thought hard about trying to climb out.”
Imagine the shock of suddenly being detained and having to decide what to arrange for your young or unborn child, with little knowledge or support, limited contact with family and friends, and mostly rumours to guide you. Imagine being unable to find out about those children later and not knowing how, or about your rights to do so. Here DIGNITY identified a particularly harmful ‘black hole’, well heard in the case of a young mother in remand, in the Philippines. “Inmates told me the Department of Social Welfare might take custody and then it would be difficult for me to get him back when I got out,” she explained to me. “So I asked [my friend] to take him, by cell phone. I got ten minutes. It was ok. Well, it was hard but we understand that it’s a privilege to use the phone.”
During my conversations with detained women I heard of one case in which a child had been removed from a detainee’s custody and without her knowledge, allegedly without permission or process (which would likely have been in breach of Bangkok Rule 49 on the best interests of the child). In another case, a former inmate was unable to find her child on release. Both were mothers of illegitimate children in Jordan, and were considered by staff to have no right to information about them at all. The former told me that while she “was dead” if she left the prison – being under threat of an ‘honour crime’ by her family – she was equally “dead in here. It’s just the same.”
These women’s stories and circumstances continued to highlight this gap: the despair of foreign women, disabled from coping mechanisms by language barriers; the use of knowledge as protection from sexual violence; and the difficulties faced by female compared to male inmates because the size and diversity of the knowledge pool among them is often much lower regarding rights, laws and options.
In short, our study has found that measures are urgently required to encourage the proactive flow of information flow between staff and female inmates, and the research and design of gendered information systems. In particular, welfare officers in prison should be supported and trained to act as personal bridges between female inmates and service providers (see Chapter V of our report for good practice in Albania and the Philippines) especially regarding the care and welfare of children.
When these needs are assessed against the protection afforded by international legal standards, including the UN Bangkok Rules it is clear that the latter also need to be further developed to adequately protect women, which would also allow UN treaty bodies to improve upon the sparse and rather superficial attention given to the issue so far. It is time for those in the UN human rights system, and in prison systems across the world, to become champions for this long overlooked group.
 Neither Standard Minimum Rule 35 or Bangkok Rule 2 cover this issue comprehensively. Please see the full report for more, Chapter V.
For references and footnotes please refer to the full report. Individual studies for Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia will be online soon at the DIGNITY website.
See PRI’s three research reports from the ‘Who are women prisoners?’ series and the PRI Toolbox on the UN Bangkok Rules.