Women and children are often thought of as those left behind when their partners and fathers end up in jail. But the number of incarcerated women, including those who are pregnant and the primary caretakers of young children, is increasing worldwide. In December 2010, the UN recognized this reality by adopting the body’s first set of rules focused on the treatment of women in prison. Following our groundbreaking work on juvenile justice, The Dui Hua Foundation intends to develop research and bilateral exchange focused on women in prison in order to amplify the voices of their struggle.

Princess Bajrakitiyabha of Thailand. Photo credit: UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2008

The number of incarcerated women is growing worldwide, but prisons continue to marginalize this demographic, perpetuating the barrage of abuse that frequently results in custodial care. Thanks to a Southeast Asian princess, however, penal systems may be on the brink of reform.

Estimated to account for between 2 and 10 percent of national prison populations, women are the fastest growing prisoner demographic. In the US, for example, the number of incarcerated women has grown at roughly twice the rate for men, multiplying by almost a factor of seven in the last three decades. Chinese data is not up to date, but, between 1997 and 2002, the number of women in Chinese prisons increased at an average annual rate of 13 percent.

In 2009, the Thai government submitted a resolution to the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, a subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Council, that recognized the vulnerability of women incarcerated in a system built principally for men. The resolution set in motion a series of meetings that culminated in the UN General Assembly’s December 2010 adoption of the body’s first set of rules focused on women prisoners: Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, or the Bangkok Rules.

Origins: Thai Women, Thai Princess

The percentage of women among Thailand’s incarcerated is one of the highest in the world. As of 2009, despite a decline in the number of women in prison since the mid- 2000s, more than 14 percent of Thai inmates were women—compared to an estimated global average of less than 10 percent.

Princess Bajrakitiyabha of Thailand began advocating for incarcerated women and their children several years ago, and played a pivotal role in the development of the Bangkok Rules. A US-educated attorney who served previously as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, she began her work after learning that many incarcerated women had histories of violent abuse, and that jails lacked the support services necessary to help inmates re-enter society safely as healthy individuals. (In Thailand, illegal sex and drug trades, which rely on human trafficking, exacerbate the need for support programs for survivors of abuse, pregnant women and mothers.)

The princess founded a rights-based prison project to support women, particularly pregnant women and mothers, while in confinement and after release. Offering vocational training and other services, the project began as a pilot initiative at correctional facilities in Bangkok and expanded to include other prisons across Thailand. Following her initial success, the princess started the “Enhancing Lives of Female Inmates” project, through which the Bangkok Rules were born.

The Rules

International treaties like the 1955 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners apply generally to all detainees and provide little detail on the treatment of women. The treaty’s only provision referencing the needs of this group specifically is a requirement that institutions offer pre- and post-natal care. The language of this stipulation seems to speak to the ambivalence with which it was included, however, recommending that women give birth outside of confinement whenever practical and that, when women give birth in confinement, a detention facility should not be recorded as the location of birth.

The Bangkok Rules largely supplement the 1995 rules and, to a lesser extent, the Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules). The latest stipulations cover such issues as the classification of women detainees; standards for healthcare, safety, and sanitation; the treatment of female inmates’ children; and non-custodial measures for minor offenses. Their language reflects today’s more progressive era and, at times, rings with clinical modernity; for instance, standards call for “gender-sensitive, trauma-informed” approaches to treat substance abuse and mental health problems.

The rules prioritize detailed registration and basic legal protections starting at intake. When a mother is admitted, information about her children is to be recorded and medical confidentiality about information such as reproductive history and screenings must be guaranteed. Moreover, prison authorities are required to help women access legal counsel if they want to seek recourse against violations they suffered before or during incarceration.

Dealt with most extensively are safeguards for women’s health and childcare duties. The rules state that screenings and evaluation should be conducted for breast cancer and other diseases, drug dependency, sexual abuse, and mental health issues that could lead to suicide or self-harm. Institutions are to support and offer nutrition and exercise advice to detainees who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or menstruating, and plan daily activities that are flexible enough to accommodate such women. If a woman has children with her in detention, she should not to be discouraged from breastfeeding, and children are required to receive healthcare services, growth monitoring, and as much time as possible with their mothers.

Disciplinary measures and other restrictions also address the special needs of women who are pregnant or have children in their care. These women are exempt from punishment that would place them in close confinement with other inmates, separate them from their children, or prohibit their ability to contact family members outside of the facility.

The Bangkok Rules are also intended to improve the capacity of institutional personnel by mandating “gender sensitivity” training for staff involved in managing women’s prisons. Training topics include women’s basic medical needs and, where children live with imprisoned mothers, child healthcare and development. HIV/AIDS is another key training component, given the high rates of the disease among women entering the criminal justice system. Workplace equality is also addressed, stipulating that women prison staff receive the same access to training as men.

Juvenile prisoners—a population still under-protected in many parts of the world—are mentioned briefly. Minors are expected to have access to age- and sex-appropriate services, and for sex-specific needs, such as pre- and post-natal care, prisons should provide incarcerated minors with the same care available to adults.

The Bangkok Rules recommend that institutions build a culture where leaders and policies promote respect for women from the moment of intake to the point of release. Standards call for employing women in managerial positions, creating regulations to minimize the risk of women being abused or harassed on the basis of their sex, and making searches safe, most notably through their administration by female staff. The rules prescribe a path for women’s successful reintegration into society by urging prison authorities to maximize the use of home leave, open prisons, halfway houses, shelters, and community-based programs. Additionally, decisions regarding parole are required to take into account a woman’s child-rearing duties.

For detainees placed under arrest or facing trial, the Bangkok Rules call on UN member states to design pre-trial sentencing and diversion alternatives in line with their own national legal systems for pregnant women and women with children. States should also devise alternatives for women offenders in order to combine non-custodial measures with interventions that address common problems—such as physical, emotional, or drug abuse—that often shape the circumstances that cause women to enter the criminal justice system in the first place.

Implementation: Casting off the Shackles of Tradition

The adoption of the Bangkok Rules marked a milestone in human rights advocacy, but the true test of their significance depends upon implementation. Compliance in some countries will be easier than in others, but even governments most capable of implementation are likely to face shortfalls in funding, trained personnel, physical space, and progressive leadership. A rule calling for electronic scans as an alternative to invasive cavity searches is one example where insufficient resources are likely to create barriers.

More daunting perhaps is the force of tradition. Many rules push for standards that are rare or unprecedented in institutions that have tended to lack transparency, be resistant to external influence, and routinely abuse women. Take for example the case of imprisoned pregnant women and mothers. American media and watchdog groups have scrutinized consistently the stress and inconvenience faced by incarcerated mothers who try to forge bonds with their children. As a tangible reminder of such restraints, as of March 2011, just seven US states had outlawed the shackling of women during childbirth, and in recent years the practice has continued. Whether these long-standing practices can be changed by the Bangkok Rules, which prohibits shackling during childbirth under all circumstances, remains unclear.

As with all international standards, it will take a considerable amount of time, resources, and political will to implement the Bangkok Rules. No matter how these efforts develop, however, the rules stand as an important challenge to assumptions about women’s rights, human rights, and prison populations, and offer the most definitive path to the reform of a system severely in need of corrections.