Female imprisonment worldwide

Catherine Heard reflects on Female Imprisonment Worldwide, a recent event organised by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Listen to highlights from the speakers’ presentations on Birkbeck’s podcast.

Why this event? A rapidly increasing global female prison population

At ICPR we compile and host the World Prison Brief, a unique online resource that provides free access to the best available data on prisoner numbers in almost every country on the globe. This gives us a bird’s eye view of important trends in world prisoner numbers, which have been rising steadily in recent decades – particularly the numbers of women prisoners, as our World Female Imprisonment List (4th Edition) shows.

Numbers of women prisoners are rising in every continent, with significant increases reported in developed as well as less developed countries. This matters, not least because of the very high levels of vulnerability we know exist among women who get caught up in criminal justice processes. Women and girls in prison usually come from backgrounds of disadvantage and are likely to have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect or mental ill health before their imprisonment.

This event brought together experts in female imprisonment from around the world to discuss some of the causes and consequences of rising female prisoner numbers.

The scale and profile of female prison populations

Our keynote speaker was prison philanthropist Lady Edwina Grosvenor. Edwina has worked in criminal justice reform for more than 20 years. Perhaps her most ground-breaking contribution has been to advance the field of trauma-informed practice in the women’s custodial system in the UK.

Next, we heard from Roy Walmsley, who founded the World Prison Brief in 2000 and who compiles the population lists. Roy presented key data from the fourth edition of ICPR’s World Female Imprisonment List. There followed a presentation from Olivia Rope of Penal Reform International, an organisation that has contributed much to creating and promoting basic standards of decent, humane treatment for women and girls in custody. Olivia talked about some of the most common characteristics of women prisoners and explained why gender-informed approaches to women in criminal justice systems are so important.

Over-incarceration of women: drivers, harms and solutions
Marie Nougier from the International Drugs Policy Consortium then presented on the work they and members of their network have been doing to change the conversation around female drug offending, a major driver of the rapid rise in women prisoner numbers. View slide presentation here. 

Our next speaker, Teresa Njoroge had just given a TED talk in the United States, so we were all the more honoured to welcome her. Teresa heads up the NGO, Clean Start Kenya, which works with women and girls in Kenyan prisons. Teresa shared with us her own experience as an inmate in a Kenyan prison, spending a year in horrendous and needlessly humiliating conditions. She said many women never fully recover from the experience of prison in Kenya and in that sense their punishment lasts much longer than the term of custody they are sentenced to serve. View slide presentation here.

We then welcomed Madhurima Dhanuka from the Commonwealth Human Rights Institute in India. Madhurima’s presentation brought into sharp focus one hugely avoidable cause of high prisoner numbers – that is, the overuse of pre-trial imprisonment, a major problem in India. Madhurima also described the psychological damage prison causes many women, with awful conditions of custody followed too often by social isolation on release when their families abandon women due to the shame they are seen to have brought. View slide presentation here. 

Our last speaker was Jo Peden from the health and justice team at Public Health England. Jo has been working on a project to develop woman centred standards of health-care for female prisoners, something that is sadly lacking in too many prisons today. Jo’s presentation shed light on the alarmingly high rates of suicide and self-harm seen among women prisoners and the underlying vulnerabilities that they bring with them into custody. View slide presentation here. 

After the presentations, we had an open discussion with our audience. We were lucky enough to have Juliet Lyon CBE with us to chair this session. Juliet is now a visiting professor at Birkbeck. Prior to this, she was for many years the director of the Prison Reform Trust, which has long promoted better understanding of the needs of women prisoners and advocated to downsize the female prison population. Juliet reflected with honesty and a sense of sadness about the distance there remains to travel in achieving justice for women affected by the criminal justice system. If you listen to my podcast on the event, you can hear Juliet’s concluding thoughts on the presentations.

Where does female imprisonment fit within our world prison research programme?

Women prisoners are predominantly incarcerated for minor, non-violent, property or drug-related crimes, and are often primary carers for one or more children or older family members. This surely suggests that the economic and social costs of imprisoning women will, in most cases, outweigh the supposed benefits. That should prompt us to look more carefully at whom we imprison and ask, in every case, why we imprison and what we expect prison to achieve.

Our prisons research at ICPR aims to do just this. It seeks to bring about a deeper understanding of the many interwoven factors that combine to drive up prisoner numbers. We are doing this so that we can come up with some concrete, practical solutions to these harmful and unsustainable increases in the imprisonment levels of recent decades. We know that in order to do this, we must provide a better account of who it is that our states choose to imprison, and why.

This is a key goal of our current project, Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment worldwide. The project entails an in-depth exploration of imprisonment in ten jurisdictions across all five continents. Those countries are: Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the United States, India, Thailand, England & Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia. Among these are countries with some of the largest prison populations in the world: the USA, Brazil, India and Thailand are all in the top six globally. Most of these countries have seen very significant increases in their female prison populations since 2000. You can learn more about the project here.

  • Catherine Heard is director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme. Catherine has also recorded a podcast on the event, with audio content from each of the speakers’ presentations.
  • Speakers’ short biographical details can be found here. 
  • ICPR would like to thank all our speakers for their contributions to this event.
  • We are grateful to Clifford Chance for their generosity in hosting the event.
  • ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme is funded by Open Society Foundations.
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