Women's Rights in Prison

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In many countries the female prison population has increased dramatically over the last ten years. Furthermore, the rate of increase in the number of women prisoners is much greater than that for men. Already, in eight countries women comprise more than one in ten prisoners.

The increase in the number of women in prison is, in some countries, primarily due to the increased use of imprisonment to punish offences that were previously punished by non-custodial sentences. This is particularly the case in relation to drug offences and non-violent theft.

Women's offending and imprisonment is closely related to women's poverty. Women are particularly vulnerable to being detained because of their inability to pay fines for petty offences and/or to pay bail. Women on remand constitute a large percentage of the women's prison population in many countries. Women offenders typically come from economically and socially disadvantaged segments of society. Typically, they are young, unemployed, have low levels of education and have dependent children.Many have histories of alcohol and substance abuse. A high proportion of women offenders have experienced violence or sexual abuse. At the same time, there tends to be greater stigma attached to women's imprisonment than men's, and women who have been in prison may be ostracized by their families and communities.

The United Nations (UN) Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners were adopted by the First UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in 1955, and approved by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1957.They remain the key point of reference in designing and evaluating prison conditions.

Since 1955, the needs and nature of prison populations have altered, and further international guidelines concerning imprisonment have been developed. Two of the most important international standards for imprisonment are the 1988 Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment and the 1990 Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners,both adopted by the UN General Assembly. These instruments, with the Standard Minimum Rules, affirm that all prisoners must be treated with respect for their human dignity with regard to the conditions of their detention. They reinforce the notion that the purpose of imprisonment is rehabilitation of the prisoner. They set down minimum standards for matters such as prisoner classification and discipline, contact with the outside world, healthcare, complaints, work and recreation, and religion and culture.

Further provisions have been agreed to address detention of children, namely the 1985 Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice and the 1990 Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty.

However, these rules and principles contain only a handful of provisions specifically directed to women and girl prisoners. There is growing concern regarding the rights and treatment of women prisoners, at national, regional and international levels. A range of international fora have emphasised the need to review prison systems and the norms and standards regarding imprisonment with women's needs in mind.

The Sixth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders adopted a resolution on the Specific needs of women prisoners highlighting, amongst other things, that:

  • because of the small number of women offenders, they often do not receive the same attention and consideration as do male offenders;
  • this inattention often results in limited access for women to the necessary programmes and services, including placement in detention facilities far from their families and home communities; and
  • that women most of the time have major responsibilities for children.

The Congress recommended that States give recognition to the specific problems of women offenders and the need to provide the means for their solution. Ten years later, in the 2000 Vienna Declaration on Crime and Justice: Meeting the Challenges of the Twenty-first Century, States committed themselves to:

  1. take into account and address, within national crime prevention and criminal justice strategies as well as within the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme, any disparate impact of programmes and policies on women and men; and
  2. develop action-oriented policy recommendations based on the special needs of women as prisoners and offenders.

The UN General Assembly's Plans of action for the implementation of this Vienna Declaration, in 2002, recommended that States "endeavour, as appropriate, to support the following actions:

(a) Reviewing, evaluating and, if necessary, modifying their legislation, policies, procedures and practices relating to criminal matters, in a manner consistent with their legal systems, in order to ensure that women are treated fairly by the criminal justice system;

(b) Developing national and international crime prevention and criminal justice strategies that take into account the special needs of women as prisoners and offenders...

More recently, the concern about women prisoners has broadened to include the children of women in prison. The General Assembly's 2003 resolution on Human rights in the administration of justice invited:

Governments, relevant international and regional bodies, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations to devote increased attention to the issue of women in prison, including the children of women in prison, with a view to identifying the key problems and ways in which they can be addressed.

The 2004 Commission on Human Rights resolution on human rights in the administration of justice, in particular juvenile justice highlighted " the need for special vigilance with regard to the specific situation of children, juveniles and women in the administration of justice, in particular while deprived of their liberty, and their vulnerability to various forms of violence, abuse, injustice and humiliation.

The treatment of women in prison must be guided by not only the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners and other prison-specific guidelines, but by all applicable human rights (and, where relevant, International Humanitarian Law) instruments. These include the:


See Rights of the Accused