Women in prison

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
September 22, 2022

When you think of people in prison, you may automatically think of men in prisons, like I often do, but there are of course many women across the world who are imprisoned. The way in which women are incarcerated across the world is different to the way in which men are, perhaps because considerably less women are sent to prison, with them making up around 741,000 of the total global prison population in 2020. It is important to bear in mind that statistically, women represent a pretty small proportion of the overall prison population and that prison systems on the whole have largely been designed to suit the needs of male prisoners, this will be made clear throughout this article. Since 2010, there are an estimated, 105,000 more women in prison across the world. With a growing rate of women being sent to prison globally, it seems like time for an overhaul on the way in which women’s prisons are fundamentally designed and delivered.

There are obviously different considerations to be made in women’s prisons, but the underlying principles of being incarcerated are the same. This being said, it is more common for women to be sent to prison for less violent offences than men, creating a different environment in prison as opposed to a prison where a significant number of the inmates are violent offenders. Recidivism is also a factor in the kind of environment inside a prison. It is much more common for men’s prisons to be housing individuals who are serving sentences as a repeat offender than it is in women’s prisons, who are more likely to be first time offenders serving shorter sentences. During the pandemic, it was noted how women in prison faced extra challenges such as going without sanitary items, issues surrounding pregnancy and separation from children, which is previously linked to mental health issues. Only 2 to 9% of national prison populations are made up of women, so it’s easy to understand that prisons often fall short in meeting their specific needs and provide inadequate services to meet these needs as they primarily target the male majority.

Looking at the percentages of a country’s total female prisoner population as a percentage of their total prison population is insightful and allows you to see the true scale of women in prisons across the world compared to men. When looking at countries in Europe in comparison to Asia, you tend to see a lower percentage of women in prison. In England and Wales, women account for 3.9% of the total prison population, this is exactly the same as in Turkey. Slightly higher is Romania, with 4.4% of their prisoners being comprised of women. Spain have almost double the percentage of female prisoners than England and Wales at 7.1%, and Andorra sit at the top end of European countries at 13.1%. Looking away from Europe, Asia have seen a dramatic 50% rise in women being sent to prison since 2010. In Hong Kong, women account for 19.7% of the total prison population, whereas women in Vietnam account for a lower 12.6%. Singapore have seen an increase in female prisoners of 2.6% in the last 20 or so years. In 2010, women in Thailand made up 14.6% of the prison population and in 2021 they made up 11.5%. Laos have also seen a decrease of 4.6% since 2016 when they had 18.3% of women making up their prison population.

Talking about women in prison can’t be ended without mentioning the Bangkok Rules, a set of 70 rules which specifically target the treatment of female prisoners and offenders, introduced in 2010 by the United Nations (UN). Rules such as, gender specific healthcare and personal hygiene encompass some of the issues already discussed, with the rules setting out things such as providing a free and regular supply of sanitary products and having services in place for pregnancy related needs like regular check-ups and breastfeeding. Interestingly, the name was given to honour Thailand, who strongly reinforced the rules to the recognition of the UN. The Bangkok Rules are comprehensive and the framework is strong, but the application is key and appears to be lacking 12 years on. There is no doubt that the prison experience for women is very different to the experience that men have, both are extremely tough environments which are the same in principle but very different in practice. 

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