Women in prison: Their particular vulnerabilities during admission

“The first day is the most horrible, the most humiliating.”
– Female inmate, Jordan

Many detained women have told me that the first days in prison are among the most distressing of their whole incarceration. This is particularly so among societies in which women’s spheres are made smaller, limited to their families and communities. For such women detention tends to bring an especially intense fear of the unknown, and a sense of helplessness, shock and shame. Various research projects have suggested that suicide and self-harm are a particular risk for women at this time, compared to men, and the many conversations I have had in the past year have given me some insight as to why.


Consider the common backgrounds of women offenders as mothers and/or as victims of abuse and/or substance abusers, along with other gendered social and biological factors, (read more on this in our report), and it becomes clearer that their needs on entry to detention and in the planning of their rehabilitation are different to those of men, and arguably greater. As the World Health Organization has stated, it is not uncommon for a woman to enter detention, receive her first health check in a long time and ― separated from her family and in a state of acute anxiety ― find that she is both pregnant and HIV positive.

Yet during our visits to eleven places of detention across the world, it was rare to find receiving staff who were well trained and gender-sensitive, or processes that try to reduce stress and orient women prisoners in ways that they understand well.

Among the 90 or so prisoners or ex-prisoners who spoke with our team, memories of degrading treatment during those first days were very sharp. Rough or humiliating search and reception procedures and embarrassing orientations among inmates (condoned by staff) lingered long after the incidents themselves. “I felt like I lost all my feelings,” said one such former inmate in Jordan, who was imprisoned for breaching social boundaries rather than breaking a law (find out more in our country report on Jordan at the end of the year). “I was totally naked, they were shouting at me. I was made to feel like a common criminal.”

During this study, our research team met with women who had spent weeks in pre-trial detention without the chance to call or see family, some not able to make arrangements for their children at all. They spoke of feeling frantic, of not being able to eat or sleep for days on end ― particularly among new mothers and mothers of young children. “My mind is filled with so much worry and I am totally confused,” said one inmate in Zambia, explaining why she didn’t think to demand food during the first few weeks of confinement.

We found that orientations on prison rules and regimes are often left to other inmates, and that women commonly neither receive or request the particular kinds of knowledge and advice that they need. This can leave them open to breaches of their health and security rights, among many others (read more in my post on Information and Complaints).

Meanwhile, few of the prisons offered prompt and comprehensive medical screenings. This worryingly suggests that that gender-specific risks and conditions, ranging from ill-treatment in custody, to reproductive and sexual health concerns, mental illness, self-harm or HIV, are going unnoticed, despite international standards now requiring otherwise (see my post on health).

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (3)Yet our findings also highlight a promising practice. In the Albanian prison system a team of staff members called a ‘waiting commission’ greets each newcomer to prison and pre-trial detention. Made up of a psychologist, social worker, medical doctor and security representative, each writes a plan for the inmate’s welfare with particular attention to signs of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. This is a practice that appears to work well for women, and could do a great deal of good in many countries around the world ― particularly for marginalized groups.

With the adoption of the Bangkok Rules in 2010, international standards (finally) do cover this area comprehensively (as reviewed in our report). But this is not enough. UN treaty bodies for example, continue to address these ‘first days’ issues in their concluding observations to States without referencing women, or their particular rights and vulnerabilities. It is up to everyone, but particularly the UN system and prison systems around the world, to act as champions for this long-overlooked group, and ensure that women’s human rights as prisoners are protected, and promoted too.


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 Torture,nowpublished as a report. For references and footnotes please refer to the full report. Individual studies for Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia will be online soon at the DIGNITY website.