Women in prison: The particular impact of prison conditions

 “These things make you feel inhuman if you concentrate on them, so you try to forget them and accept life.” ­― Inmate, Zambia

Visitors call through fence wire to inmates in the female section of Lusaka Central Prison

Visitors call through fence wire to inmates in the female section of Lusaka Central Prison

All prisoners are deeply affected by the conditions of their detention, from the amount of light they get to the quality of the food and cleanliness of cells. Yet just as some conditions or deprivations can be more common among particular groups, others experience the same conditions in different ways. Such is the case for women.

In 2008, the UN’s independent expert on torture raised the bar for women by asserting that, in the context of detention, poor conditions can affect them more adversely, compared to men. My own conversations with women in prisons around the world found examples of this throughout prison life (and particularly in the many squalid and unsafe police cells used to detain women on arrest) with harmful if not devastating effect.

The case of police custody in Zambia highlights this painfully. Here women told us of their humiliation at having to ask male guards to visit the toilet to defecate, and having this request granted or denied as a ’privilege’ for ’good behaviour’ – as well as their shame and intimidation at using the toilet in front of prison staff or inmates. Others have been denied contact with family and, by extension, access to food, hygiene products or information. Our team were told of cases in which police deliberately isolated women from outside help, including food, to coerce them into sex. (See more in my post on safety and security).

On life in prison generally, the most common complaints across five countries were about hygiene and space. Around just half of the facilities provided hot water for free, and few provided free cleaning materials, as obliged by international standards (read about the Bangkok Rules in our report). In some countries, such as Guatemala and Zambia, women told us that they are not being provided with any free hygiene items at all by the prison, including soap. They described the affronts to their basic human dignity as they struggle to keep themselves clean during menstruation.

In most countries, women in prison are less likely than men to have access to funds of their own, yet they tend to be supported less by outsiders too, unless NGOs and other help groups fill in. Yet none of the prisons visited provided regular free supplies of sanitary towels, leaving some women using rags, others needing to source them wherever possible. We found that many new mothers are returned to prison within a day, if not hours of giving birth. The need for them to actively seek hot water and soap, at the bare minimum, is abhorrent, traumatizing and of course dangerous.

In these conditions women told us of their fear, guilt and helplessness at failing to keep accompanying children clean, healthy and fed. In some prisons, such children do not receive their own food rations, and mothers must share. For mothers with HIV, who need certain amounts of food to take their medication, this is lethal. In Zambia staff told us of a woman who had almost given her child up for adoption because cellmates refused to let her light an early fire and use scarce cooking fuel to cook for her baby. In a prison where two mother-and-baby pairs may share a single soiled mattress, an inmate told me: “You should smell the stench. All the kids are sick with diarrhea, and you’ve got this stench coming from the toilet, and someone sleeping with a baby next to it.”

Women's cell, Albania's 313 remand facility, Tirana.

Women’s cell, Albania’s 313 remand facility, Tirana.

Meanwhile in Jordan, where facilities were relatively sophisticated, one factor ― the lack of ventilation ― linked with gendered realities, had let to particular health problems. Because drying laundry, including underwear, was difficult, urinary tract infections had become common, yet we were told by an NGO worker that many cases go untreated because women are often too ashamed to report them.  As our report clearly details, there are rights and concerns that are unique to women, and that remain unseen or unaddressed because of this.

Nevertheless, since 2010 the UN’s Bangkok Ruleshave addressed these issues and boosted the largely gender-blind protection given by the original Standard Minimum Rules for prisoners. And there are of course prisons that are detaining women in dignified, low security and rehabilitative conditions ― as we found in Albania’s main prison for women (read an article of mine on this here). These standards, and these best practices, need to be better disseminated and used for reform.

The UN human rights treaty bodies often express concern about conditions of detention in their concluding observations to States, and sometimes addresses women’s particular conditions. Yet as our report reveals, their references remain qualitatively and quantitatively poor, with little or no reference to the Bangkok Rules or the particular needs and vulnerabilities that they address. It is up to everyone, but particularly the UN system and prison systems around the world, to become a champion for the Bangkok Rules, and those whom they serve.

This is one of a series of posts by the author on her research last year among women’s prisons and prison communities in Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia, with DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torturenow published as a report. For references please refer to the full report. Individual studies for Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia will be online soon at the DIGNITY website.