Current HomePage

Conditions for women in detention: Key findings and recommendations

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….

Continue Reading Share

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

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…

Continue Reading Share

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…

Continue Reading Share

Turning terror into terrines

South China Morning Post, 24 Aug 2014.   Anti-terrorism expert and social entrepeneur Noor Huda Ismail tells Jo Baker about attending school with a future Bali bomber and helping jihadists to reform

A GOOD MUSLIM I was born in Yogyakarta, in Indonesia, and brought up in a strong Javanese culture. My dad is a Muslim but was raised in a Catholic family, and my mum comes from Muslims but her father was a puppet master, so knew a lot of Hindu stories. I was sent to Islamic boarding school when I was 12 to become a “good Muslim”. This changed my life forever because a number of the students went on to be notorious Islamic militants who brought atrocities to the region. The founder of the school started (militant terrorist organisation) Jemaah Islamiah, and its members were involved in the first Bali bombing and the Marriott bombing (in Jakarta). For many people, terrorists are a faraway issue, but I have a very personal connection. I played football with them, I ate with them.


Continue Reading Share

New publication: Conditions for Women in Detention - Needs, vulnerabilities and good practices

DIGNITY – The Danish Institute Against Torture, Jun 2014. 

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 this study, written by Jo Baker with Therese Rytter for DIGNITY.
            Find the executive summary and full report here
                                       Find a two-page summary of findings and recommendations here

While all human beings are vulnerable when deprived of their liberty, certain groups are at particular risk. For women, the discrimination that they face in broader society reaches deep into places of detention such as prisons, which are largely still designed and managed for men, by men. As a minority ― although a growing one in many counties ― detained women are often overlooked at the…

Continue Reading Share

Workshops and Presentations

Presenter and Chair: MENA regional forum on Detention Monitoring, convened by DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, 27 – 30 Nov, 2014, Marrakech, Morocco. Chaired one of three working groups on issues relating to gender, and contact with the outside world; gave a presentation on research findings relating to women in detention. (The other two chairs were the UN Special Rapporteur on VAWG, and a member of Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture).

Sponsored participant, Women and Girls at Risk Working Group workshop to increase opportunities for displaced women and girls to participate and self-advocate for their rights on issues affecting their lives, convened by the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (includes training on reciprocal research methodologies by the Centre for Refugee Research, University of New South Wales), 31 March – 4 April 2014, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Presenter: ‘Healthcare and the Bangkok Rules: Meeting the needs of women in detention’, International…

Continue Reading Share

Making scents: saviours of the incense tree

South China Morning Post Magazine, 9 Mar 2014.

The heady fragrance of agarwood gave Hong Kong its name, but it has become so valuable its source is under threat. As Jo Baker discovers, though, there are those for whom the incense tree is worth more than money.

Ho Pui-han makes her way along the fringes of a country path, through a patch of trampled undergrowth and then points to a deep gash at the base of a tree.

“You can see where they’ve cut the wood as a test,” says the conservationist. “They’ll be back in a month to check and, if it’s the right tree, they’ll just chop it down and carry it across the border.”

Close to extinction in the mainland and internationally protected as a species, Hong Kong’s dwindling stands of Aquilaria sinensis, commonly called the incense tree, have become a holy grail for smugglers. The tree’s resin, which gives off a heady scent – like a muskier, more complex sandalwood – has been prized as a spiritual and medicinal tool for centuries throughout the…

Continue Reading Share