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…

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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…

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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.

SURVIVING SCHOOL At first I was disappointed with the rudimentary school: a dingy dormitory, sleeping on the floor and no girls in my class. Boring! But I made a close friend and he said, "You can survive." He helped me learn maths and martial arts. When I was 17, I qualified to be part of a scholarship group that would go to Pakistan to study military training because I was smart and physically fit. During those years I believed that Islam was the best way to solve social problems. There was a struggle back then between Islam and the nationalists, and the (Indonesian) government made me sympathetic with Muslims by targeting them aggressively. In all these boarding schools there

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.

SURVIVING…

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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 expense of their dignity, wellbeing and human rights. Yet, as now well established in international law, women’s specific needs require different and sometimes greater attention in order for women to enjoy their rights equally to men. As particularly well established in the recently adopted UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules) there are concrete ways in which this must be done.

This study focuses on conditions for women in detention, and works by theme, from physical conditions and provisions, to areas such as health, safety and work. For each, DIGNITY presents the level of protection that has developed for detained women in international standards, and determines whether this has been well reflected in the jurisprudence of four major UN human rightstreaty bodies in the past six years (2008-13).

Dignity has intertwined this review with empirical research in women’s prisons in five very different countries, with emphasis on the voices of inmates themselves. During in-depth, private conversations, we have asked detained women, what matters most to you?

This research was conducted in Albania, Jordan, Guatemala, the Philippines, and Zambia in 2013 and early 2014, among almost 90 detained or formerly detained women in 11 facilities, and more than 80 prison staff and others working with detained populations, from NGOs staff to lawyers and social workers.

DIGNITY hopes that this study, and the voices of those in it, will contribute to the effective planning, programme development and policy formulation for women in places of detention, along with the advocacy for their better protection, and broader awareness and understanding of a group, which has, until very recently, been largely invisible in human rights discourse.

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…

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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…

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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

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…

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It’s Slow Time

South China Morning Post, 8 December, 2013.

Heavy hitters meeting at a Thai eco-resort seek to avert environmental catastrophe by targeting and changing the mindsets of the world’s most powerful people and companies, writes Jo Baker

The night is clear and black, the stars are close and the voice of Johan Rockstrom echoes around the open-air cinema of a luxury Thai resort as he describes the world’s impending demise. Reclining in the shadows with pre-dinner cocktails, a motley crew of problem-solvers listens. And as the leading sustainability scientist gets to a key part of his speech – on rainfall patterns – it feels as if the Earth has decided to make a point. Without warning, the heavens open.

“I was just about to get to the good news,” the Swede says, as his audience runs for cover.

It may have chosen one of the more luxurious conference spaces in the world, but try not to hold that against the Slow Life Symposium, which – in its fourth year – is threatening to become a driver of…

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Hong Kong is still failing its women

The South China Morning Post, 8 March — Op-Ed on International Women’ Day, with CEO of The Women’s Foundation, Su-Mei Thompson.

Later this year, Hong Kong will come under the microscope of a UN committee reviewing the city’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). While Hong Kong is ahead of many other societies in protecting the human rights of women, big gaps remain, and The Women’s Foundation has submitted a “shadow report” to inform the committee’s analysis.

The gaps we have identified are wide- ranging and affect women and girls across age bands and social strata. Chief among them is the feminisation of poverty, reflected in the lack of specific consideration given to elderly women in the government’s budget for health care and the fact that, because many were not part of the formal workforce, they do not receive any benefits from the Mandatory Provident Fund scheme. This is all despite the fact women are outliving…

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We need to talk about Quotas: Making women’s views count in Myanmar

South China Morning Post (Op Ed), 12 December 2013

Myanmar’s first high level international forum for women showed a surge of new ideas being tolerated by its government. Of the most impactful was in the debate on quotas – with global female icons Aung San Suu Kyi and Christine Lagarde on either side.



Myanmar’s most famous icon may be female, and yet women have been absent in decision-making throughout its five-decade military stranglehold. Its activists have been at best, ignored – at worst imprisoned or killed. So last week’s high level international forum on women’s leadership – the first in the country, and with the support of the government – was a high profile suggestion of change.Hosted by the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, and attended by political icon Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde and a range of international CEOs, it gave diverse women from Myanmar one of their first chances for unfettered public debate – including with Daw Su Kyi herself.

In doing so, Myanmar women were brought full force into one of the more divisive issues in developing democracies: quotas for women. Quotas are a temporary tool used to balance equality of opportunity, by allocating a percentage of positions to women, in sectors from politics to peacekeeping. Critics claim that they can lower the bar of ability or talent in a field, and lead to the tarnishing of legitimately qualified women; advocates counter that, wielded well, they are one of few ways to break through institutional barriers, change minds, and challenge stereotypes.  (Earlier this year the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reported a significant increase in women MPs during the 48 elections in 2012, and put this largely down to their use.)



Yet despite the recommendation for quotas by the UN’s independent expert on Myanmar as well as the Myanmar government itself in a strategic plan on women’s empowerment (launched in October) - and strong results from the use of quotas in other fast developing neighbours, such as India - the country has yet to host a healthy range of debates on  the issue – the kind that lead to locally owned decisions on where and how quotas are used.

It was therefore incredibly heartening to see the issue’s public debut at the conference, at full force.  In a compelling sight, Aung San Suu Kyi’s more conservative stance – softer pro women measures such as boosting education for girls – was countered with confronting questions by women from a range of sectors. Why should there be a 25% quota for the military in politics, but none for women? Will pro-women education policies really be enough to change the fact that more than 95% of Myanmar

South China Morning Post (Op Ed), 12 December 2013

Myanmar’s first high level international forum for women showed a surge of new ideas being tolerated by its government. Of the most impactful was in the debate on quotas – with global female icons Aung San Suu Kyi and Christine Lagarde on either side.

Myanmar’s most famous icon may be female, and yet women have been absent in decision-making throughout its five-decade military stranglehold. Its activists have been at best, ignored – at worst imprisoned or killed. So last week’s high level international forum on women’s leadership – the first in the country, and with the support of the government – was a high profile suggestion of change.Hosted by the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, and attended by political icon Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde and a range of international CEOs, it gave diverse women from Myanmar one of their first chances for unfettered public…

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Update: Women in Detention – A Cross-regional Study

Throughout 2013 I led research missions into prisons and prison communities in Zambia, Jordan, the Philippines and Albania, for DIGNITY - the Danish Institute Against Torture, and remotely managed research in Guatemala. I

Throughout 2013 I led research missions into prisons and prison communities in Zambia, Jordan, the Philippines and Albania, for DIGNITY – the Danish Institute Against Torture, and remotely managed research in Guatemala. I’ll present this in a qualitative study, due to be launched in the margins of the Human Rights Council summer session 2014, along with a high level panel discussion.

The study includes a desk review of UN standards on women in detention (particularly the Bangkok Rules) as well as their their treatment – or lack thereof – by UN treaty bodies. Its primary focus however, is what matters most to the women themselves.

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