Female prisoners’ population worldwide rises by 100,000 in past decade – Report

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The past decade has seen an increase in the number of women jailed globally by over 100,000, despite international rules aimed at reducing the female prison population, an NGO promoting criminal justice reforms said.

A report by Penal Reform International (PRI) shows an increase of 17% in the global female prison population and brings the total to an estimated 741,000 since the Bangkok Rules were adopted a decade ago.

“The number of women in prison globally is climbing at an alarming rate – even though they are typically convicted of low-level, nonviolent crime,” said Olivia Rope, executive director of Penal Reform International.

The organisation’s research highlights a lack of progress, with women unduly imprisoned in numerous countries.

More than 80 organisations have signed a call to action for governments to fully implement the rules and review policies to reduce the number of women behind bars.

“Shocking systemic cases of human rights violations, including violence and mistreatment, persist worldwide,” said Rope. “Many women are deprived of essential health and rehabilitation services and face physical or sexual violence in prison.”

The Bangkok Rules were implemented to reduce the imprisonment of women by promoting noncustodial alternatives and addressing the causes of their offending. Yet over the past decade in every region except Europe, the numbers have risen.

Restrictions relating to the pandemic have further impinged on women’s rights and access to justice.

The suspension of visits in most prisons has prevented families from providing essential items, such as sanitary products, and supplemental food to provide adequate nutrition for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers.

“COVID-19 measures have had a devastating impact on women in prison, with many denied any contact with their children or excluded from emergency release programmes,” said Rope.

The call to action highlights that many women – who represent between 2% and 9% of national prison populations – are imprisoned as a result of discrimination or crimes committed in poverty.

Women are also disproportionately affected by punitive drug policies, with 35% in prison for drug-related offences compared with 19% of men.

“A high proportion of women in prison have a history of abuse and violence, increasing the risk of mental health issues,” said Anand Grover, a member of the global commission on drug policy and former UN special rapporteur on the right to health.

“Women’s specific needs are often ignored, revealing that gender inequality does not stop at the prison doors.”

Ban Ki-moon, former secretary-general of the UN who helped steer the adoption of the Bangkok Rules when in post, said: “The rules promote alternatives to imprisonment for women, particularly in light of the health risks posed by COVID-19, governments must do more to make sure imprisonment is used as a last resort.” (Source: The Guardian)

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