Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol of Thailand (third right) joins panelists in advocating for implementation of the Bangkok Rules. Photo credit: Penal Reform International

“Treating as equal those who are unequal not only leads to further inequality, it leads to injustice,” quoted Andrea Huber during a panel on the “Human Rights of Women in Prison: A Toolbox to Implement the UN Bangkok Rules.” Held on October 16, a week before China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the panel was organized by the Permanent Mission of Thailand to the United Nations, Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ), and Penal Reform International (PRI). Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol of Thailand gave the keynote and was joined by five panelists: Mari Amos, member of the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture; Andrea Huber, policy director at PRI; Ambassador Adisak Panupong, executive director at TIJ; Frank Elbers, director at Human Rights Education Associates; and Simone Monasebian, director at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) New York Office.

The UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules) were adopted in December 2010, but they are still relatively unknown among national and international policymakers and prison practitioners. Declaring the 1955 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners insufficient to meet the needs of women prisoners, Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol called on all nations to implement the Bangkok Rules.

Demonstrating their importance, Huber stated that women are more likely than men to face physical or mental trauma during detention, interrogation, and incarceration. Prior to their contact with the criminal justice system, women are also more likely to have experienced domestic violence, mental illness, or substance abuse. It is also more common for them to be the primary caretakers of young children. These realities make clear that women in conflict with the law need tailored healthcare and rehabilitation programs, including greater access to non-custodial measures that take into account their families.

Low awareness, lack of gender segregation, and insufficient female staff stand in the way of implementation.

Barriers to Practice

Lack of awareness about the situation of women in prison and the Bangkok Rules themselves is one of the barriers to implementing gender-specific treatment, but other practical realities stand in the way. One is a lack of gender segregation. Amos said she has seen prisons with mixed male and female populations on all five continents. In China, most provinces have one women’s prison, but women-only detention centers are rare. One of the consequences of placing men and women in the same facilities is that female prisoners prefer not to receive gender-specific treatment as a means to avoid hostility from male prisoners, who may see such measures as favoritism, Amos said.

Another issue is an insufficient number of female staff, especially among guards and medical personnel. For example, Rule 10 of the Bangkok Rules stipulates that women prisoners should have access to female doctors, and in cases where only male doctors are available, a female staff member shall be present. According to Amos, some prisons only bring in female doctors once a month. In China, recruiting and retaining women corrections officers has proven difficult, and national standards for police-to-prisoner ratios go unmet in most women’s prisons.

Towards Implementation

Huber, Ambassador Panupong, and Elbers discussed tools for implementing the Bangkok Rules, in particular a guiding document and a free online course. Ambassador Panupong said the guidance document provides an impetus for change and allocates responsibilities to different key players. Monasebian called on non-governmental organizations to help with implementation.

The panel was one in a series of events at the United Nations to increase awareness of the Bangkok Rules. TIJ debuted a documentary about the rules the following day in collaboration with Two Hands Free, the Academic Council on the United Nations System, and the United Nations Women’s Guild.

Dui Hua is doing its part. We are organizing an international symposium on women in prison in Hong Kong in February 2014. The symposium is hosted by the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong, and organized in partnership with PRI and the Center for Criminal Procedure and Reform (CCPR) at Renmin University of China Law School. The symposium will consist of two days of presentations and exchanges. On the third and final day, having already received agreement in principle from the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department, we hope to visit a prison for women.

Thus far, 19 experts from Argentina, China, India, Norway, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, the United States, the United Nations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have agreed to make presentations. A broad range of issues will be examined, including domestic violence, physical and mental health, children of incarcerated women, and the treatment of juvenile offenders. A highlight of the symposium will be a presentation by Professor Cheng Lei, CCPR deputy director, on field research he conducted on conditions in Chinese women’s prisons and detention centres. Also discussing the Chinese corrections system, but with a focus on its ability to accommodate the Bangkok Rules, will be Professor Dan Wei of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate Institute for Procuratorial Theory.

Dui Hua is organizing a symposium on women in prison at the University of Hong Kong in February 2014.

A member of the UN Working Group on the Issue of Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice, Eleonora Zielinska, will be among the presenters. During its UPR, China announced that the working group has been invited to visit China in December 2013. Dui Hua lobbied for the invitation, which is the first Beijing has issued to a UN Special Procedure in three years. At the symposium, Zielinska will introduce the working group, which was established in September 2010, and discuss its visit to China. Other UN representatives in attendance will be Adwoa Kufuor, human rights officer at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and Fabienne Hariga of the UNODC.

Andrea Huber will provide an important introductory presentation on why the Bangkok Rules are needed and relevant implementation tools. Providing the necessary context to understand violence against women as a cause and consequence of custody will be Elizabeth Brundige, executive director of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and visiting assistant clinical professor at Cornell Law School, and Chen Min, researcher at the Supreme People’s Court’s China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence.

The topic of children of incarcerated mothers and non-custodial measures will be the subject of presentations by Rachel Brett, representative for human rights and refugees at the Quaker United Nations Office; Rani Shankardass, secretary general of India’s Penal Reform and Justice Association; and Zhang Suqin, director of Sunny Children’s Institute in Beijing. A joint presentation on juvenile offenders will be conducted by Patricia Lee, managing attorney at the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender, and Professor Wang Ping, associate dean of the School of Criminal Justice and director of the Centre for Restorative Justice at China University of Political Science and Law.

The local situation of women prisoners in Argentina, Hong Kong, Norway, and the Philippines will be discussed by Silvia Edith Martínez, public defender of the Defensoria General de la Nación; University of Hong Kong professors Karen Laidler and Maggy Lee; Hilde Lundeby, governor of Bredtveit Prison; and Rachel D. Ruelo, superintendent of the Correctional Institute for Women, respectively. Finally, the relevance of the Bangkok Rules to the ICRC’s role in preserving the life and dignity of detained women and girls will be explored by Christoph Polajner of the group’s Regional Delegation for East Asia.

The objectives of the symposium are to increase transparency of the conditions in women’s correctional facilities worldwide; explore issues in a comparative, international framework; promote the Bangkok Rules among institutional actors and decision-makers; and propose recommendations at the institutional and governmental level to improve conditions in women’s correctional facilities.