Women in Prison: The Particular Importance of Contact With the Outside World
“I felt isolated from the entire world. If I’d stayed any longer I’d have started eating the window bars.” – Inmate, Jordan
Contact with the world outside of prison is vital to the wellbeing of every detained person ― but for women this is arguably more important, and more of a challenge.
Such was a key finding in my research with DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, among women’s prisons and prison communities in five countries, last year. When asked about their greatest hardship or cause for depression, the answers of detained women repeatedly echoed that of this inmate from the Philippines. “The most difficult thing? Leaving my children. I have six. Most of us are mothers and some of us have been here a long time and our husbands left us while we were here. I worry all the time and I can’t think of anything else. I can’t sleep.”
For many such women, their need for contact with family – and their identities as part of these families ― are arguably different and much stronger than those of most men, and the stress of not being able to see or find out about their children is all-consuming, and hugely harmful. For those who left children in family environments that were abusive, this situation can be particularly dark.
Meanwhile since women tend to have far less access to financial support or earnings, they rely more heavily on outside help for the basic needs often not met in prison, from nutrition, to baby milk powder and sanitary towels. This affects a range of rights. Our research suggests that often, for example, the women who are most vulnerable to neglect or exploitation in prison are those who do not have help on the outside. “Keep us in prisons near home so that we can have family support,” said one woman in Zambia. “When you don’t [have any support] you are prone to abuse or they don’t really care about you inside.”
Yet women are often less likely to receive visits in prison. This is partly because the stigma of prison can be gendered. Many spoke of pervasive social shame, and of husbands that quickly leave. “When women are in prison it makes a big shame for her family,” an NGO worker told me in Jordan. “They may refuse to visit her and cut all relations with her, particularly those women who have killed.” Thus such women, many of whom have been through years of domestic violence, can find themselves completely cut off from the outside world.
Visiting conditions also play a role. Because women’s prisons are usual scarce, relatives may need to travel a greater distance from their homes, which takes time and money. The mother of one young political prisoner that I met could only afford the three-day journey each way once a year. Visits can also be cold and traumatic, particularly for children… if those children are allowed to visit at all. While in Jordan this involves 10-15 non-contact minutes behind security glass, in one Zambian prison (where visitors simply call their news through two wire fences) children are not allowed to visit. A woman may therefore give birth to a child shortly before her arrest, and then not be able to hold or see the child again until she is released. This is surely tantamount to inhuman treatment, for both.
But the good practices found in our study show that there are ways in which prisons can ensure dignity, flexibility and intimacy during visits ― and help to hurdle gender barriers too. For example in the Philippines our team found that visitors can spend substantial, dignified free time with inmates in communal areas of the prison. In Albania, where I drew a number of good practices, welfare staff try to mediate between female inmates and their estranged families, and arrange visits by detained mothers to their children’s care homes.
The issue of contact with the outside world is well recognized in international standards, including the Bangkok Rules for women prisoners. Yet when it comes to a thorough understanding of women’s human rights, much more work is required among prison systems, and even UN treaty body reports, to make sure that this understanding is grounded in the realities of the women themselves. It is time for all of us to become champions for the human rights of this long-neglected group.
This is one of a series of posts by the author on her research last year among women’s prisons and prison communities in Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia, with DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture, now published as a report. For references and footnotes please refer to the full report. Individual studies for Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia will be online soon at the DIGNITY website.