women prisoners

How to reduce the number of women in prison

Women are a minority in prison. Currently, of the 10.35 million prisoners worldwide, over 700.000 (6.8%) are female (1). However, this number has been rapidly growing.

Since 2000 the number of female prisoners has increased by about 50% (2).  This expanding amount is a major societal problem. Other than men, women – in most parts of the world – have a crucial care-taking role. They are frequently responsible for children (3), elderly and other people in the community.

The welfare of these dependent persons is adversely affected by the imprisonment of their caretakers (4). Therefore, female imprisonment may not only have a negative effect on the prisoner, herself (5) , but also on her surroundings.

Considering the dramatic growth of female prison population levels over the past years, and the problems induced by this growth, governments should make an immediate effort to reduce the number of women in prison.
The inventory below provides several suggestions to bring numbers down. Proposals are directed towards state institutions at all levels (legislature, executive, policy makers, and judiciary).

Criminalisation and prosecution

Generally, women are in prison for a short time, and usually for smaller non-violent crimes (6).  To reduce the number of women in prison, governments could consider decriminalising some of these crimes (e.g. the use of narcotic drugs). A different prosecution policy in relation to smaller crimes may also help to reduce the number of women in prison. Prosecution policy could, for example, focus on the instigators of a social problem instead of the victims (the prosecution of drug dealers instead of drug users).

Pre-trial detention

Many women spend time in mandatory pre-trial detention for minor drug crimes (7).  However, pre-trial detention could be used more sparingly in these cases. Although international human rights law does not set a standard as to which crimes provide a reason for detention, detention must be proportionate (reasonable relative to the crime of which the detainee is suspected and to the risks averted by detention) and necessary (detention may only be applied if all less severe avenues are inadequate to control the suspect) (8). In case of minor drug crimes, the requirements of proportionality and necessity may not have been met.

Sentencing

Prison sentences should be avoided for the lowest-level criminality. Short-term sentences have a disastrous effect on female convicts: the sentences are too short to cure root causes of criminal behavior (e.g. addiction, mental health problems, lack of education) and too long to preserve stability factors that prevent a woman from reoffending (social relations, house, job).

If a sentence must be imposed, a non-custodial sentence is often preferable, because it enables stability factors to be maintained. When a prison sentence is the only option, these sentences could, in many cases, be shorter. In several countries, a woman convicted even of a low-level drug offence receives a long sentence simply because it is a drug offence (9).

Reduction of time in prison can also be effectuated by (a more frequent) use of early release programs and international legal cooperation relative to the transfer of execution of sentences (if the sentence is reduced in the home country). Finally, courts could reduce sentences by focusing more on specific mitigating factors (care-taking role, lack of criminal record, history of abuse) and/or complete defenses (duress, self-defense) that are relevant in case of female offenders.

Prisons

Due to the comparatively low number of female inmates, prisons and prison systems have traditionally been designed in response to the behavior of men (10).  Women prisoners, however, have different needs.
They are, for example, more prone to mental health problems and abuse in prison, they are often primary caretakers of children and they have specific (reproductive) health and hygiene issues (11).
Prisons that address these female needs may release women into society who are equipped with a better set of tools to face their problems. Consequently, these women may be less prone to reoffending.

Joint State policy

Powers within the State must cooperate to reduce the number of women in prison.
Crime prevention usually lies within the Ministry of Justice, while a multi-departmental (ministry of labor, health, education) policy to prevent women from starting on the downward slope would probably be more effective (12).
These policies should tune into the criminogenic context of women (child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual violence, lack of education, poverty, minimum employment histories, mothering and responsibilities for others, mental health problems and addiction) (13) to prevent women from ending up in prison. Policies should also focus on the needs of women already in prison (e.g. better education programs) to enhance their chances of a successful reintegration. (14)

Conclusion

Many of the above recommendations – e.g. promotion of non-custodial sentences, meeting the needs of women in prison – are endorsed by the 2010 UN Bangkok Rules (15).
The Bangkok Rules are a set of non-legally binding instructions to governments that aim not only to reduce the number of women in prison, but also to satisfy the needs of women in prison and to prevent human rights violations in case of female prisoners.
Worldwide, governments are working on the implementation of these rules. Although many rules have already been put into practice, there is still a lot of work ahead. (16)

1 R. Walmsley, World Prison Population List 2015 (11th Ed.), World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research, London, United Kingdom.
2 R. Walmsley, World Female Imprisonment Brief 2015 (3rd Ed.), World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research, London, United Kingdom.
3 The majority of women in prison seem to be mothers, see Krabbe, M.J.M. & Van Kempen, P.H.P.H.M.C., ‘Women in prison: a transnational perspective’, in Van Kempen P.H.P.H.M.C. & Krabbe M.J.M. (eds.), Women in prison: the Bangkok Rules and beyond, Antwerp: Intersentia, 2017, p. 3-34, p. 22.
4 Doc. CPT/Inf (2000) 13, para. 28. For a broad study on the effects of parental imprisonment on children, see Joseph Murray, Catrien C.J.H. Bijleveld, David P. Farrington & Rolf Loeber, Effects of parental incarceration on children, Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2014.
5 Gillian Hunter & Polly Radcliffe, ‘Are magistrates doing justice to women?’, 92:1 Criminal Justice Matters, 34, 2013.
6 Krabbe, M.J.M. & Van Kempen, P.H.P.H.M.C., ‘Women in prison: a transnational perspective’, in Van Kempen P.H.P.H.M.C. & Krabbe M.J.M. (eds.), Women in prison: the Bangkok Rules and beyond, Antwerp: Intersentia, 2017, p. 3-34, p. 20-21.
7 Pien Metaal & Coletta Youngers, System overload: drug laws and prisons in Latin America, Washington, DC/Amsterdam, 2011, p. 91.
8 Van Kempen, P.H.P.H.M.C., ‘Pre-trial detention in national and international law and practice’, in Van Kempen, P.H.P.H.M.C. (ed.), Pre-trial detention: human rights, criminal procedural law and penitentiary law, comparative law, Antwerp: Intersentia, 2012, p. 3-46, p. 34.
9 Luciana Boiteux, Lucian Peluzio Cherocharo & Camilla Souza Alvez, ‘Human rights and drug conventions: searching for humanitarian reason in drugs law’, in: Beatriz Caiuby Labate & Clancy Cavnar (eds.), Prohibition, religious freedom and human rights: regulating traditional drug use, Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer, 2014, p. 1-23.
10 F. Dünkel, C. Kestermann & J. Zondolek,  International study on women’s imprisonment, Greifswald: University of Greifswald, 2005, p. 3.
11 Krabbe, M.J.M. & Van Kempen, P.H.P.H.M.C., ‘Women in prison: a transnational perspective’, in Van Kempen P.H.P.H.M.C. & Krabbe M.J.M. (eds.), Women in prison: the Bangkok Rules and beyond, Antwerp: Intersentia, 2017, p. 3-34, p. 13-15.
12 Rogan, M. and Reilly, M., Women in prison in Ireland, in: Van Kempen P.H.P.H.M.C. & Krabbe M.J.M. (eds.), Women in prison: the Bangkok Rules and beyond, Antwerp: Intersentia, 2017, p. 479-511, p. 511.
13 Krabbe, M.J.M. & Van Kempen, P.H.P.H.M.C., ‘Women in prison: a transnational perspective’, in: Van Kempen P.H.P.H.M.C. & Krabbe M.J.M. (eds.), Women in prison: the Bangkok Rules and beyond, Antwerp: Intersentia, 2017, p. 3-34, p. 19-21.
14 For a more substantiated overview of these recommendations see Krabbe, M.J.M. & Van Kempen, P.H.P.H.M.C., ‘Women in prison: a transnational perspective’, in: Van Kempen P.H.P.H.M.C. & Krabbe M.J.M. (eds.), Women in prison: the Bangkok Rules and beyond, Antwerp: Intersentia, 2017, p. 3-34, p. 25-28.
15 Official name: United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, GA Res. 65/299 (16 March 2011).
16 On the work that lies ahead see Krabbe, M.J.M. & Van Kempen, P.H.P.H.M.C., ‘Women in prison: a transnational perspective’, in: Van Kempen P.H.P.H.M.C. & Krabbe M.J.M. (eds.), Women in prison: the Bangkok Rules and beyond, Antwerp: Intersentia, 2017. p. 3-34, p. 21-34. Topical implementation issues are, for example: health care, children in prison, searches and prison design.

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Maartje Krabbe (LL.M, PhD) is an assistant professor at the Department of Legal Science of Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Together with full Professor Piet Hein van Kempen (LL.M, PhD) she edited and wrote Van Kempen P.H.P.H.M.C. & Krabbe M.J.M. (eds.), Women in prison: the Bangkok Rules and beyond, Antwerp: Intersentia, 2017. The introductory article of this book, also authored by Krabbe and Van Kempen, Women in prison: a transnational perspective is available for free


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