Conditions for women in detention: Key findings and recommendations

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (11)What are the issues, risks and vulnerabilities that face imprisoned women across the world? How is this being addressed by those who detain them? And is this well reflected in the attention they receive by the UN human rights treaty bodies? These questions lie at the heart of at 2013 study conducted by myself with DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture, among prisons and prison communities in five countries — Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia.

Below you will find a potted summary of our findings and recommendations. Please see our main report: ‘Conditions for Women in Detention: Needs,Vulnerabilities and Best Practices’ — or my series of blog posts on our findings for more depth. 

International Standards

Since the elaboration of the Bangkok Rules in 2010, UN standards on the treatment of female prisoners, and prisoners generally, adequately address their needs, vulnerabilities and dignity – with one exception: gendered barriers to information. However the implementation and awareness of the Bangkok Rules is weak.

UN Treaty Body Review

The rights and needs of women in detention have not been adequately addressed by the four major treaty bodies researched, in number and quality. Issues of safety and security have received most attention, yet recommendations are not always gender-sensitive, and violence against women in detention receives only a fraction of the attention given by the UN bodies to the issue in the outside world. Gender-specific health care needs receive limited attention by the treaty bodies, particularly mental health care and treatment for substance abuse. Most treaty bodies address the issue of contact with the outside world, but none have taken a gender-sensitive approach. Of the four bodies reviewed, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture leads in its treatment of detained women, yet requires greater gender-sensitivity; references by the Committee against Torture have steadily increased in quantity and quality over time; the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women lacks quantitatively in this area, although this is partly remedied qualitatively; and the Human Rights Committee has given the least attention to women in detention.

The Bangkok Rules have been mentioned just fourteen times among over 80 UN reports published between the date of their adoption, and December 2013.

What matters? Key needs and vulnerabilities of women in detention in five countries? 

The needs and demands expressed by detained women are largely covered by the Bangkok Rules, other than the right to information. Contact with the outside world is a clear and unanimous priority, and the need for income and income-generating skills is a common priority. As mentioned, there is a critical and largely unmet need for gender-sensitive information systems in detention – which act as a barrier to a spectrum of rights – and for gender specific health care, with particular attention towards inmates’ mental health. It was also found that many women are at their most vulnerable during admission; poor conditions in detention can have gendered roots and harmful effects; and degrading treatment in detention is often differently expressed towards women, and differently experienced.

Findings for each of these areas are summarized in more details in blog posts, here.


Drawn from research in five very different countries, these recommendations address the most urgent and common gaps, as described by those living in places of detention, and those working with them. Each cuts across a number of the themes in this study, and aims to supplement, enrich and focus reform processes on detention of women, as required by international standards.

Ensure that all Committee members are fully aware of the Bangkok Rules, the gaps that the Rules aim to fill, and the need for them to be championed by the treaty bodies, particularly in the areas of concern highlighted below.


Incorporate consideration for women’s particular needs and vulnerabilities –as reflected in the Bangkok Rules – in national rules and regulations on women in detention

Adapt, distribute, and train staff to adopt gender-responsive regulations based around the Bangkok Rules for each facility. Ensure that these are written into a sustainable policy framework rather than being the ad hoc actions of individual enlightened staff.

Management and Staff
Appoint gender sensitive, welfare-oriented managers of women’s prisons, and train all staff in communication and dynamic security approaches to combat gender-based stigma and degradation in control and discipline practices.

Empower staff to have more personal contact with inmates.

Champion, fund and train more gender-sensitive welfare officers. These staff can play the most important role for female detainees because they can identify and attend to those who are most vulnerable and marginalized, provide inmates with the personal attention they crave, and can act as a gender-sensitive information point.

Information Systems and Contact with the Outside World 
Analyse systems and channels of information for detainees from a gender perspective; address any gaps with processes that allow women to comfortably seek and receive seek accurate information.

Ensure that the post natal care and decision-making process is well informed and supported. Support the opening of (unlimited and free) channels of information between women and their children or children’s carers, particularly where a detainee is considering adoption, and relax restrictions on phone calls and visits while these are made.

Address and remove any discriminatory policies, practices and attitudes that breach the rights of unmarried mothers to information about, contact with and custody of their children.

Allow and help to facilitate at least weekly contact visits between women and their children, particularly babies, in comfortable low-security conditions and for multiple hours, with facilities for overnight or long term accommodation for young children.

Admission, Safety and Security
Review and modify admission practices so that they take a stronger welfare approach, in line with women’s experiences of the first days in prison as the most traumatic. Place particular focus on eliminating degrading admission procedures.

Stringently review and reform practices and conditions in police custody, with focus on prevention of gender-based violence and sexual harassment.

Hygiene, Health, Safety and Security
Be aware of the degradation felt by many women and their increased risk of exploitation when basic hygiene necessities are not provided.

Provide these in line with international standards, and allow outside organizations and well-wishers to supplement ― not replace ― this duty.

Increase women’s access to psychological support and therapy groups, particularly regarding gender-based violence, stigma and separation anxiety.

Ensure that female inmates have direct access to female nurses, and do not need to report health concerns publicly.

Regime and rehabilitation
Develop programmes that will train women in skills to prepare them for their release, and independent living.

Provide and encourage participation in a daily exercise programmes that will appeal to women detainees and help to boost their health and morale.


Better publicize the Bangkok Rules and other international standards and best practice regarding gender-sensitive prison management among prison administrations worldwide.

Support the systematic integration of the Bangkok Rules into training for all staff engaged with women inmates, and writing of related law and policy