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Commentary: Coronavirus and women in detention: A gender-specific approach missing

FT Admin - June 10, 2020 - COVID-19 Updates, Commentary, Prison conditions

This post was written by Olivia Rope, Director of Policy and International Advocacy at Penal Reform International, and originally posted on Penal Reform International.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a whole host of responses by prisons and wider justice systems, but the plight of women has been neglected or overtly disregarded. Without a gender-specific assessment and response to coronavirus, lives of women in criminal justice systems are at risk and human rights violations will continue. 

This expert blog by Olivia Rope, Director of Policy and International Advocacy at Penal Reform International, draws on information collated from partners in the ‘Women in Prison Network’ that brings together women with lived experience of prison and advocates from 21 countries convened by the Vance Center for International Justice.

Over the past few months, we have witnessed a quiet but steady growing awareness for people who are in prison* amid this global pandemic. There has been increased media coverage reporting on mass releases, lockdowns and the stories of the people affected by imprisonment. There has been attention from authorities as activists, alongside world leaders, warned of the great danger of coronavirus outbreaks in overcrowded prisons. But within this hive of activity to prevent and address COVID-19 in prisons, there has been relative silence around the unique situation for women in prison, and their children.

There are more than 700,000 women in prison globally, compared to over 10 million men. There are also approximately 19,000 children living in prison with their mothers. The smaller proportion of women in prison populations is one reason criminal justice systems too often remain designed and run with men in mind, and often by male decision-makers. Where governments have taken action to prevent or address COVID-19 in prisons, they too seem to have men in mind, mostly overlooking the different and unique impacts they may have on women.

Women in prison have complex health needs with disproportionate rates of underlying health conditions compared to women in the community. This fact, coupled with overcrowded and unhygienic prisons in many corners of the globe, puts women at great risk of contracting COVID-19. High numbers of women also enter prisons pregnant or having recently given birth, as drug users and/or with serious physical and mental effects of violence and related trauma.

Women in prison during the pandemic are navigating their way through changes in their daily life in prison, or experiencing a complete lack of action to protect their health, and lives. Where coronavirus-related measures are in place, these have in many instances brought greater hardship or different impacts for women compared to men.

Where coronavirus-related measures are in place, these have in many instances brought greater hardship or different impacts for women compared to men.

A grave indicator of the lack of consideration for women in prison amongst decision-makers is that data remains gender neutral. Justice Project Pakistan who is tracking infection and death rates from COVID-19 in prisons globally has observed that most data, whether officially or unofficially available on COVID-19 in places of detention, fails to provide any accurate information or disaggregated data by sex.

Similarly, with some states working to release people to attempt to mitigate the dire consequences of a potential COVID-19 outbreak in prisons, there is scant data on how many women were included in such initiatives. While the odd prisoner release strategy has reached women, for example, Afghanistan where over 700 of the female prison population have been released, it is concerning that elsewhere women have been largely excluded. In Kenya only ten women (of 5,000 prisoners), and in Nigeria, only one woman (out of 2,600 prisoners) have so far benefited from early release. Release criteria indirectly excludes women in other places. For instance, people in prison for drug-related offences are disqualified from release mechanisms in Colombia, disproportionately impacting women as 45 per cent of women in prison are there for drug-related offences (compared to 12 per cent of men).

In Kenya, only ten women (of 5,000 prisoners), and in Nigeria, only one woman (out of 2,600 prisoners) have so far benefited from early release.

Some countries’ release mechanisms made provisions for pregnant or breastfeeding women or those with children living in prison with them, like in Mexico. We welcome such moves that are in line with recommendations made to especially focus on the needs of pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, made by the World Health Organization and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, among others. In other countries, including in Malawi, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Colombia and Pakistan, no specific measures or moves have been made to protect even this vulnerable group.

Women must be considered as a group within emergency release mechanisms, beyond the limited segment of women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or with their children in prison. In most countries the female prison population comprises non-violent, first-time offenders – including low-level drug or poverty-related crimes – bringing little danger to society and low risks of recidivism (hence the UN Bangkok Rules encouraging non-custodial alternatives).

At the point women are released from prison, challenges continue with a myriad of issues faced in rebuilding their lives. They are at high risk of becoming homeless, poor and prone to abuse.  It is well documented that domestic and other gender-based forms of violence during the pandemic are dire, with as many as 90 per cent of domestic violence cases reported to be directly related to COVID-19. The high rates of violence experienced among women in criminal justice systems before and during detention therefore requires a careful release plan to ensure the necessary support is in place. With resources diverted into emergency health provision for COVID-19, “services, such as hotlines, crisis centers, shelters, legal aid and social services are at risk of being scaled back”. There are real concerns that women released are unsafe without these key lifelines. Where support services are provided many have had to adapt to the pandemic, shifting to online or remote ways of working. The ‘digital divide’  affects women more than men (less women own a mobile phone for instance), and this can lead to vital services being inaccessible.

The majority of prison systems have been closed off from the outside world, barring or limiting visits and imposing lockdowns or quarantines in a move to prevent cases of COVID-19. For all people detained these lockdowns bring a whole host of knock-on effects, such as limited contact with their loved ones, less oversight and monitoring of their treatment and detention conditions, and in some cases restrictions on their ability to access medicines or even food.

In women’s prisons, one of the major concerns in imposing lockdowns for any significant period of time is that moments of extreme anxiety and depression are frequently connected to separation from children. Therefore, cutting off contact to children, particularly time to play and meet in-person, significantly impacts the mental health of women in prison. While people in prison have a disproportionately high rate of poor mental health, research shows these rates are even higher for women in prison – and are often connected to violence and discrimination threaded through their life stories.

In Jordan, we have also seen that the social stigma and discrimination of women in prison, which is disproportionately higher than for men in prison, has meant that suspension of visits has cut off financial support. Usually women would be given some money during visits, whereas additional efforts are needed to send money to people in prison.

Where lockdown regimes effectively constitute solitary confinement, as in women’s prisons in New Zealand, the unduly harsh and damaging effects are likely to be long lasting, well beyond the pandemic. These issues are exacerbated by inadequate or reduced access to mental health services than before the pandemic, as reported in the case of women prisons in Colombia. Across many countries we have seen that programmes to support better mental well-being of women in prison have been suspended as external providers have no access. Some have adapted, like the Kenyan NGO, Faraja Foundation, who have established an e-counselling service offering psychosocial support to prisoners and prison staff as a support tool through the crisis.

Positive action has been taken to mitigate the lack of visits through other means of communication in many countries, like in Kazakhstan where there is no limit on video calls for people in prison. However, where there is cost involved, sometimes female facilities get left behind. In the Philippines, for instance, IT facilities are being allocated to male dormitory prisoners, but only one telephone has been made available for more than 1,000 women imprisoned in the Manila City Jail.

On a very practical level women in prison have been reported to have gone without sanitary pads during lockdowns, as these are often provided by external support networks, charities, families etc. who were not able to visit. The provision of (free) sanitary items for women is “enshrined” in the UN Bangkok Rules on women prisoners – an essential that is so closely linked to hygiene, but also the right to dignity. For this reason, in Jordan, Penal Reform International has worked with authorities and is now providing hygiene materials such as sanitary pads, wipes, soaps, etc. for women in prison.

Cutting off contact with the outside world has caused other problems, and rights violations, for women in prison. Increased tensions, anxiety and reduced oversight is a dangerous concoction that can result in increased violence in all places of detention. In women’s facilities a greater threat of sexual violence during the pandemic is exacerbated by decreased security and lower levels of staff.

The responses, or lack thereof, to the global pandemic to protect and mitigate the impacts on women serve as real evidence to the discrimination women in criminal justice systems face. The COVID-19 pandemic should prompt governments and all of us to challenge the deeper roots of discrimination – at all stages of the criminal justice system. Criminal justice systems remain discriminatory, normalising gender inequality, repeating and exacerbating the injustices many women who come into prison they have experienced outside. This is even more so the case during emergencies.

The responses, or lack thereof, to the global pandemic to protect and mitigate the impacts on women in prison is real evidence to the discrimination women in criminal justice systems face.

Thus, while the immediate urgency of women who remain in prison, and those just released, are the focus of our efforts, both in advocating and providing practical help, we all need to look ahead. In the long-term, women are going to bear the brunt of the impeding financial crisis. Gender inequalities, patriarchal societies, poverty and human rights violations will push female prison populations even higher unless there are broad (and major) reforms.

Some urgent recommendations for a COVID-19 response in prisons and justice systems to ensure women are not left behind include:

  • Any measures to reduce prison populations, protect people in prison from COVID-19  or mitigate the impacts of responses must be at least equally applied or accessible to women
  • The collection and disaggregation of data on the impact of COVID-19 on women in prison, in conflict with the law and those released
  • Consideration of women in release mechanisms existing, or new ones, taking into account the nature of their offending, the hardship experienced by measures and regime changes in prison
  • Ensure women released from detention have the required support, including housing/ accommodation and financial means to ensure their safety
  • Provision of mental healthcare and facilitation of contact with the outside world, especially children
  • Any measure or change to the prison regime should take account of disproportionate impacts on the mental health of women detained, and therefore should be in place only as a last resort, with time-limits as necessary and proportionate to the risk posed
  • Bring the voices of women into decision-making, including women with lived experiences of prison and the criminal justice system and representatives of civil society

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please call the media team on +44 (0) 7749 785 932 or email [email protected]

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