Contributed by Miranda Morton
On 23 October 2014, Penal Reform International hosted a side event of the Third Committee, 69th Session of the UN General Assembly sponsored by the Mission of Thailand. The event, so titled “Women in custody—gender equality challenges and opportunities in crisis and conflict situation”, focused on identifying pathways that lead to the imprisonment of women and defining issues that face incarcerated women.
This event reflected a paragon of partnership between NGOs and UN Missions. Penal Reform International, the host, is an NGO that “promotes fair, effective and proportionate responses to criminal justice problem worldwide”. Sponsorship came from the Mission of Thailand in part due to Princess Bajrakitiyabha’s pivotal role in the development of the UN Bangkok Rules.
The UN adopted the Bangkok Rules (officially, The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders) in 2010. Previously, there had been a gaping chasm in international standards addressing the specific needs of women in the criminal justice system. The Bangkok Rules establish appropriate practices for providing gender-specific healthcare, treating women humanely, preserving their dignity during searches, protecting them from violence, and providing for their children (who are all too often incarcerated with their mothers).
Since officially confronting the gender-specific challenges posed by female prisoners in 2010, the present challenge is shifting from paper to practice. With so many actors and authorities involved in the treatment of state offenders, deliberate application must include civic education and involvement. Reversing blanketed incredulity and public discrimination against detained women can ameliorate some of the greatest challenges facing women in the prison system.
Key challenges include: inadequate provision for female hygiene, unjustified use of restraints, solitary confinement and its psychological effects, supervision by male staff, inappropriate touching resulting from searches, sexual violence, lack of defense attorneys, and insufficient provision for family contact (incarcerated women often find themselves in an overcrowded facility far removed from their homes because female prisons are few and far between, making it difficult for family members to visit).
Discriminatory practices towards female prisoners are not just an issue in war-struck or volatile countries—these issues also exist in established countries with developed economies and institutions. To learn more, please visit: http://www.penalreform.org/.