December 2020 marked ten years since the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules) were adopted.
The tenth anniversary of the UN Bangkok Rules was marked by statements from international institutions, leaders and over 80 civil society organisations expressing alarm at the increase in the global female prison population since the adoption of the Rules, and the general lack of change in treatment of women in prison globally. The overall assessment is that while much progress has been made in raising awareness of the Bangkok Rules and some specific measures have been adopted in a number of countries to improve the situation for women in criminal justice systems, implementation on a significant scale remains piecemeal. This is most notably demonstrated in the upward trend in the number of women in prison worldwide over the past decade.
This rise is due in no small part to the criminalisation and increasing use of imprisonment in response to behaviour by women in many contexts. This includes laws that criminalise poverty such as petty offences, low level drug-related offences like possession of small amounts of illegal substances, and ‘status offences’ that only criminalise women such as abortion, witchery or sorcery (see Laws that discriminate against marginalised groups).
The increase in women’s imprisonment is also an indication of some countries taking harsh approaches to women who commit offences in a context of violence, coercion, poverty or discrimination. In Sierra Leone, for example, loitering laws are particularly likely to criminalise women who do not comply with traditional gender norms such as being out late, and those who engage in sex work, which is otherwise legal. New Research in Australia shows the number of women in prison has risen faster than men over the past decade and that women entering prison often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a history of substance use and mental health issues. Of the women surveyed, one in four were unemployed prior to imprisonment, 27 per cent were in short-term or emergency accommodation, and 7 per cent were ‘sleeping rough’ or ‘in a squat’. The UK Government said in early 2021 they expect the number of women in prison to rise by 40 per cent by 2025 and plan to build 500 new prison cells specifically for women – in spite of their 2018 strategy which aimed to reduce the number of women in prison. Figures showed more than half of women convicted in 2019 were for low-level offences such as minor criminal damage and shoplifting, and almost half committed their offence to support someone else’s drug use.
Women have been somewhat overlooked in strategies for responding to the pandemic in prisons. Most data officially or unofficially available on COVID-19 in places of detention fails to provide any accurate information on women or disaggregated data by sex. Women have faced increased hardship during the pandemic, where changes to prison regimes failed to account for their specific needs. In Malawi, for example, designating isolation centres in each region of the country for people put into pre-trial detention came at the expense of moving all women to one prison up to 350 km away, which prevented their families from providing them with food and basic necessities. In Norway, women had to undergo quarantine in a high security prison, regardless of whether they were to serve their sentence in a high or lower security facility, as effective infection control measures could not be implemented for women in lower security facilities.
Changes to regimes and visitation which cut off in-person contact with children due to COVID-19 have had a significant impact on women’s mental health. In a survey of two English women’s prisons in June 2020, 68 per cent of women said their mental health had deteriorated since prisons went into lockdown in March. The number of self-harm incidents in women’s prisons across England and Wales increased by eight per cent in the year to September 2020 – and 24 per cent in June to September – while it decreased among men by around seven per cent in the same year. A report published by the Irish Prison Service in 2020 shows that the rate of self-harm was 5.7 times higher among women than men in prison in 2018. Mental health issues were cited as a primary factor in 45 per cent of cases, while ‘procedural’ issues such as a recent cell move, change in regime or security level were also highlighted in 24 per cent of cases.
In many instances, women did not benefit from exceptional release measures to the same degree as men, despite many women in prison being of low risk. Research found that across 53 jurisdictions, only a quarter of release mechanisms applied criteria to enable the release of women, including those who were pregnant, breastfeeding or had young children in prison. While release mechanisms in some countries, like Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Ethiopia, and England and Wales included pregnant or breastfeeding women or those with children living in prison with them, their implementation was patchy. Better efforts were seen in Kenya where sources suggest about a third of women in prison (879 women) were released in 2020 through emergency releases and the end of their prison term.
Women faced an additional barrier to release in countries like Afghanistan, where release was dependent on the payment of bail and fees and women typically do not have control over household finances. Release schemes in at least 28 countries excluded drug-related offences, which disproportionately impacts women in countries where high numbers are in prison for low-level drug offences – such as Colombia, where this applies to 45 per cent of women in prison, compared to 12 per cent of men.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.