MAY 2014

The United Nations Bangkok Rules on women offenders and prisoners
Sharron Fast
Centre for Comparative and Public Law
University of Hong Kong

Sharron Beautiful

I am happy to introduce WCJN's new blog. I am grateful to have Sharron Fast, law professor at the University of Hong Kong as our first contributor. I was woefully ignorant of the UN's interest in aiding female prisoners until Sharron's informative presentation at the international C.U.R.E. (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) conference in Bangkok this past March. (Editor)


Full Version

United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (‘the Bangkok Rules’) 
Short Version ( Tool Box)


"Making Women a Priority in the Criminal Justice System"

The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (‘the Bangkok Rules’) were adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2010 and fill a long-standing lack of standards providing for the specific characteristics and needs of women offenders and prisoners.

The 70 Rules give guidance to policy makers, legislators, sentencing authorities and prison staff to reduce the imprisonment of women, and to meet the specific needs of women in case of imprisonment. The Rules cover, for example: admission procedures, healthcare, humane treatment, alternatives to imprisonment, search procedures and provisions for children who accompany their mothers into prison.

Why do women matter as a distinct class of prisoners with distinct needs?

Incarceration rates for women are on the increase globally, and yet the historical approach to institutional design from architecture, heath care, reception facilities, training and family contact provisions remains essentially wholly imported from institutions designed by men for the male prison population.

Why do these distinctions matter? Two important distinctions need to be drawn between the male and female prison populations to illustrate. First, the nature of the crimes committed by dominant offenses by gender, second the nature of the imprisoned population by gender.

On the whole, female offenders are more likely to be committed for non-violent crimes, such as theft and fraud offenses. The second largest group of offenses women are likely to commit are drug-related offenses. What makes these offenses distinct from those committed by male prisoners, who are, largely, detained for violent offenses, is of course the level of risk to society. Another distinction, which brings us neatly to the point raised above on the nature of the imprisoned population is that they are offenses which are largely driven by economic status.

Opponents of advocates for distinct treatment provisions for female prisoners might be surprised to hear that globally, most female prisoners are mothers, and that amongst these incarcerated mothers, the majority are either the sole or primary care-giver. It is no surprise that economically driven crimes are the predominant offenses under which women are placed under detention. This is not to deny the fact that women can and do indeed commit violent offenses. However, recent studies in the area of domestic violence for example indicate that those incarcerated for crimes of violence are overwhelmingly likely to have come from a background of abuse themselves (as many as 90%).

Why does implementation of the Bangkok Rules matter?

As a class of prisoners, women enter the system for very different reasons – economic, social, history of abuse – than male prisoners. Moreover, they also have specific physical and mental health care requirements which are distinct from the male population. As mothers, they are largely the primary care-givers; hence the impact of their incarceration on their families is more profound. By signing and implementing the Bangkok Rules, nation states can take the opportunity to reassess their approach to the needs of women offenders and to devise appropriate responses to their needs. Acknowledgement that the current ethos surrounding the imprisonment of women is problematic would be a significant step towards bettering the lives of this vulnerable and often overlooked population.