Women in Prison: An International symposium on the Bangkok Rules took place at the University of Hong Kong in February.

Dui Hua; the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong; Penal Reform International; and the Center for Criminal Procedure and Reform at Renmin University of China Law School organized Women in Prison: An International Symposium on the Bangkok Rules in Hong Kong from February 24–27, 2014, to examine the global surge in women’s incarceration and the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules).

Dui Hua began its work on women in prison by focusing on China. We found little available research on the conditions in China’s women’s prisons—largely due to lacunas in transparency and institutional support—and as a result, endeavored to obtain funding for independent field research. With the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a team at Renmin University of China Law School—led by Professor Cheng Lei, deputy director of the school’s Center for Criminal Procedure and Reform—carried out research in two Chinese prisons and three Chinese detention centers.

Conducted during the second half of 2013, their field work examined the situation of women located across diverse geographic regions with varying levels of economic development. Data were collected through interviews, questionnaires, and on-site observations and supplemented with judicial statistics. During the study, researchers distributed 500 questionnaires and recovered 458. Due to prison approval procedures, random sampling was not conducted.

National Numbers

Women account for about six percent of people serving sentences in Chinese prisons, with 95,770 women in prison in 2012. While the percentage of China’s women prisoners is in the middle of the global range, growth in the number of China’s women prisoners is striking. In 2011, the growth rate of China’s population of women prisoners was five times higher than that of China’s total prisoner population. Between 2004 and 2011, the population of women prisoners grew 31 percent, compared with just 7 percent growth for all prisoners.

The Issues

Excessive focus on numbers … has resulted in a neglect of all those qualitative factors relating to locking up people that leads to the kind of damage that incarceration does most of all to women in prison. Women prisoners are persons first and prisoners second. (Shankardass 1)

Painting a picture of basic quality of life issues, Professor Cheng’s team focused on four issues: physical health and hygiene, marriage and family rights, mental health, and dignity and privacy protection. Presenting his paper on February 26, 2014, he noted that there has been a general improvement in the treatment of women prisoners over the past few years but highlighted several areas requiring additional progress in gender-sensitive treatment.

He began with water and food. The provision of hot water is sufficient for hydration, he said, but not for hygiene, especially for menstruating women. Similarly, the hot meals served in canteens provide adequate sustenance, but are not commonly designed to meet women’s unique nutritional requirements. (For example, menstruating women need more iron in their diet than men.)

Professor Cheng Lei discusses his research in Chinese women’s prisons and detention centers at the symposium.

Contact with family was the issue most raised by interviewed prisoners. (The topic relates to both women and men but is often more significant for women, since they are more likely to be the primary caretaker of children.) Women complained that they were not allowed enough time for phone calls, and that the number and quality of visits were less than ideal. In particular, they drew attention to the use of glass barriers in visitation rooms, which prevent direct physical contact.

In comparison with the situation for women in prisons, women in detention centers face more stringent limitations: people in pre-trial detention are not allowed any visitors until after they are sentenced. As part of the government’s five-year work plan issued in October 2013, Chinese lawmakers are currently drafting a detention center law to increase the visitation rights of detainees. Current rules state that persons incarcerated in detention centers “may” receive visitors, but visits are not required nor guaranteed and, in practice, are routinely denied.

Related to visitation were considerations for human dignity. Professor Cheng touched specifically on the desire among prisoners to wear their own clothes—a common practice in Norwegian prisons—and makeup. Women are commonly allowed to do so on public holidays, but Professor Cheng suggested that these freedoms be extended to visitation days, enabling women to retain their sense of personal dignity in the presence of their family members.

The obstacles to family contact and assaults on human dignity that are often part of the carceral experience contribute to psychological stress. This is especially problematic for women prisoners since they are likely to have these stressors compounded by histories of mental illness, domestic violence, and substance abuse, which they experience more commonly than incarcerated men.

Touching on mental health, Professor Cheng noted that Chinese prisons commonly rely on prison police to provide prisoners with psychological counseling. Citing financial constraints as the main barrier, he suggested that prisons follow Shenzhen’s example and hire professional and independent psychologists to work with prisoners.

Requiring prison police to perform specialized tasks like counseling speaks to another problem in Chinese corrections: a lack of talent and practical training. Prison police are classified as civil servants in China. That means they earn the same salary as other civil servants in their locality. This reality coupled with few opportunities for advancement, long hours, and little prestige has made it difficult to attract talent to work inside prisons. For those who are recruited, training generally focuses on legal knowledge rather than the interactive, practical skills necessary to deal with prison life. This is particularly problematic for women’s prisons since laws and regulations on the treatment of female detainees are “scattered and overly simplistic,” and deal mostly with sex segregation and special procedures for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Prioritize Women, Implement the Bangkok Rules

In the world’s most populous country, prioritizing policies to serve the people is no easy task. Looking only at the number of women in prison (as a percentage of the population) and informed by crime-related stigmatization and gender stereotypes, the needs of women at odds with the law may not seem paramount. This dismissal is evidenced by the many policymakers inside and outside China who are not familiar with the Bangkok Rules. However, women prisoners are women first and prisoners second. They are often survivors of gender-based violence. By committing to implement the Bangkok Rules, states prioritize the rights of women, families, and communities, and provide hope for brighter futures. ■

Works Cited

Cheng, Lei, Xiaogang Lü and Chen Jianjun. “Research Report on the Treatment of Women Detainees in China—Using the Bangkok Rules as the Starting Point of Analysis” paper presented at Women in Prison: An International Symposium on the Bangkok Rules, 26 February 2014.

Shankardass, Rani Dhavan. “The Imprisoned Woman in India: Prisoner as Person,” paper presented at Women in Prison, 25 February 2014.