Women offenders and imprisonment

Women have a heightened vulnerability to mental and physical abuse during arrest, investigation and in prison.

Women offenders and imprisonment

Women are the ugly new faces of modern crime, there are more females in the dock and behind bars than ever before. Women have been accused of smuggling, stabbing, armed robbery, abduction at gunpoint, drugs and illegal firearms offences. The complex changes in social life, urbanization and modernization have made ladies more aggressive and violent than ever and they seem to not holding back. This could be attributed to the fact that women are becoming more independent and in turn reflected in crimes committed by women. It is becoming increasingly common that women are seen as accomplices with criminal gang members.

Women are as entrepreneurial as men and if they are good at education, business, sports, it stands to reason they are going to be just as good at other areas like crime. In the criminal milieu of days gone by, the woman would stay at home and look after the house, although she would probably know what was going on. Now women have their own businesses on the side. This could be the one side of the story. Similarly, women have become an important player in the criminal justice system. Women have assumed many roles like, victim of crime, as a suspect of crime, as a defendant, as an offender and most importantly as a staff of criminal justice system.

However, when women have to face the criminal justice system as an offender they have been treated differently than the male offenders. Although, a considerable proportion of women offenders in prison as a direct or indirect result of the multiple layers of discrimination and deprivation, often experienced at the hands of their husbands or partners, their family and the community. Offences committed by women are closely linked to poverty and often a means of survival to support their family and children. Women prisoners’ portrayal of being drug peddlers/users, lower-level property offenders, and sex workers are over represented. Majority of the women, mainly commit petty crimes, theft and fraud and studies have demonstrated that prior emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse contributes to women’s criminal behavior. Due to their economic status, they are particularly vulnerable to being detained because of their inability to pay the cost to fight for their rights even in petty offences and/or to pay bail. Women (and girls) comprise the minority of prisoners around the world, constituting an estimated 2 to 9% of prison populations.

Due to their small number amongst the prison population, the specific needs and characteristics of women and girls as subjects of the criminal justice system have tended to remain unacknowledged and unaddressed. Prison systems and prison regimes are almost invariably designed for the majority male prison population — from the architecture of prisons, to security procedures, to facilities for healthcare, family contact, work and training. As a consequence, few prisons meet the specific needs of women prisoners, and often do not prepare them for release with gender appropriate rehabilitation. The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules) were adopted in December 2010 to rectify the lack of standards, however the political regimes still lack awareness and commitment to implementation. Gender roles result in a particular stigma attached to women in prison, and while spouses regularly support their husbands in prison and upon release as a matter of course, reciprocally women tend to be shunned by their spouse–and often even the whole family–if they are detained. At the same time, women are often the sole or primary caretaker of young children, resulting in a particular impact of even short periods of detention on children and the wider family. Some studies also suggest that females charged on moral offences are treated more harshly than males, presumably for having transgressed their gender role. In some jurisdictions, women even face charges of adultery where there is clear indication that a rape occurred. Such practice is further victimizing women and deters them from reporting rape and sexual abuse, thereby allowing perpetrators to escape justice. However, it is very difficult to apply human rights standards to informal justice systems and they rarely guarantee women’s right to equality before the law. Rather, most informal justice systems are dominated by male elders or community leaders and tend to perpetuate discrimination against women, largely excluding women from decision making and preserving patriarchal notions of how men and women should behave.

We have to find new ways to replace imprisonment of women as it is quite obvious that women offenders do not pose a risk to society and their imprisonment may not help, but hinder their social reintegration. Accordingly, the criminal justice system should take into account their backgrounds and reasons that have led to the offence committed and provide the assistance required to help them overcome the underlying factors leading to criminal behavior. The Bangkok Rules provide a solution to the problem, in Rule 57, “gender-specific options for diversionary measures and pretrial and sentencing alternatives shall be developed within Member States’ legal systems, taking account of the history of victimization of many women offenders and their caretaking responsibilities.” Even a short period in prison may have damaging, long-term consequences for the children concerned and should be avoided, unless unavoidable for the purposes of justice.

In many regards, women have a heightened vulnerability to mental and physical abuse during arrest, investigation and in prison. Women prisoners are at particular risk of rape, sexual assault and humiliation. Further, there are cases of dependency of prisoners upon prison staff which leads to increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation, as it drives them to ‘willingly’ trade sex for favors. Adequate protection and oversight mechanisms are lacking while prisoners who are abused or exploited by prison staff usually have little opportunity of escaping from the abuser. Women are particularly afraid of making complaints due to fears of retaliation and the stigmatization of sexual abuse. The lack of female staff to attend and supervise women prisoners and the lack of training on their specific needs aggravate disadvantages faced by female prisoners. Women prisoners have greater primary healthcare needs in comparison to men.

Again women are likely to suffer particular discrimination after release from prison, due to social stereotypes. They might be rejected by their families and in some instances they may lose their parental rights. If they have left a violent relationship, women will have to establish a new life, which is likely to entail economic, social and legal difficulties, in addition to the challenges of transition to life outside prison.

The risk of losing their accommodation and employment upon detention is higher for women, and women offenders are confronted with increased stigmatization as in our society they contravene prevailing role models for their sex. Therefore, women are likely to have particular support requirements in terms of housing, reunification with their families and employment, and will need assistance. While a general requirement to apply individual treatment according to the needs of prisoners is enshrined in Rule 69 of Bangkok Rules. The practices in vogue on the treatment of prisoners, pre-release preparation and post-release support policies and programs are typically structured around the needs of men and rarely address the needs of women offenders, with targeted continuum-of-care in the community after release. Rehabilitation programs should be designed and made available in prisons specifically for women prisoners, taking into account their needs, aiming to address the underlying factors that led to their offence and to cope with the challenges they face as women in prison.


The writer can be reached at malikmasud@hotmail.com