Women here have neither control nor voice

This week BIHR attended the launch of ‘State of the Estate’ Women in Prison’s report on the women’s custodial estate. The report is significant because it offers the first examination of the UK government’s progress on meeting international human rights standards on the treatment of women offenders, commonly known as the Bangkok rules. The UK, along with other UN member states, voted for the Bangkok rules in December 2010. In doing so ‘all UN member states acknowledged the gender specific characteristics of women in the criminal justice system and agreed to respect and meet the particular needs arising from these characteristics.’ Put simply, women have different needs, their experience of the criminal justice system is different, and if we are to treat our women prisoners fairly and humanely we must develop a system that works for them.

So what kind of differences are we talking about? There are many factors that make women’s experience of the criminal justice system distinct from that of male offenders. Pregnancy, maternity, and the fact that the majority of women prisoners are primary carers for children are some of the most obvious differences. However there are a multitude of other complex issues to address when looking at the needs of women prisoners. High levels of mental health problems, substance misuse, self-harm, and experiences of violence against women are just some of the challenges facing our female prison population.

Rachel Brett from the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva gave an interesting insight into the negotiations behind the Bangkok Rules. She told us how many European countries came to the discussions expecting their standards for the treatment of women prisoners to be better than those in poorer countries. In reality this wasn’t always the case. There were many poorer countries who are treating incarcerated women much better than western counterparts, showing that the treatment of prisoners is not simply a resource issue. The case has been made time and time again, in the Corston Report and elsewhere, that reforming the way we treat women In the criminal justice system doesn’t actually need to cost anything, and if some of the more bold reforms were implemented, they may actually be cost saving.

Leah Thorn, a poet and writer with a wealth of experience of running creative workshops in women’s prisons in the UK, told us about her recent experience of travelling to a number of correctional institutions in the USA. There practices such as shackling women in labour, and the strip searching of women prisoners by male guards still occur. She spoke eloquently about some of the experiences of degrading treatment women had shared with her, both in the US and the UK, and the need to push for these practices to be stopped using human rights standards.

That is what State of the Estate highlights so brilliantly, the links between individual women’s experiences and international human rights standards. We know from our work at BIHR that it can be difficult to make this link, to understand how rules and regulations made at a UN level actually have relevance to our lives. State of the Estate illustrates that this doesn’t need to be the case. It shows how international human rights standards can help us identify practical changes in policy and practice that can make a real, tangible difference to the lives of vulnerable and marginalised people in institutional settings such as prisons. How human rights standards can make a difference in places where rights are often most at risk.

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