Why are women prisoner numbers rising so rapidly?

Catherine Heard, from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, discusses the latest data released in the World Female Imprisonment List. Catherine directs the World Prison Research Programme at ICPR, which hosts and publishes theWorld Prison Brief.

This week at ICPR, we released the most comprehensive global dataset ever produced on women prisoner numbers. The fourth edition of our World Female Imprisonment List – published on 9 November – shows that the world’s female prison population has increased by about 53% since 2000. In comparison, the male prison population has gone up by around 20%. Numbers of women prisoners are rising in every continent of the globe, with significant increases reported in both developed and less developed countries.

The surge in numbers of incarcerated women is all the more troubling given the 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. They are highly likely to have been victims of crime themselves and are far more likely than other women to have histories of trauma, abuse, neglect and mental ill health. The World Health Organisation estimated in a 2009 report that up to 80% of women prisoners have an identifiable mental illness.

For virtually every country across the globe, the List gives information on the total number of women and girls in prison; the percentage of that country’s prison population comprised by women; and the number of imprisoned women and girls per 100,000 of the national population (the ‘prison population rate’). The List also includes information about trends in female imprisonment, at national, regional and continental levels. For most countries, the List gives trend data back to 2000 and at intervals since. (On the World Prison Brief website, trend data going back much further in time are available for many countries’ overall imprisonment levels.)

The List shows, for example, that in England and Wales, the total number of women prisoners has fallen somewhat since the high levels seen in 2005 and 2010, although it’s still higher than it was in 2000. We learn that our female prison population rate is 6.7 per 100,000 of the general population, compared with the Netherlands’ rate of 3.2 (reduced from over 11 per 100,000 in 2006).

Some of the biggest increases have occurred in countries struggling with severely overcrowded prisons, where conditions are already reported as inhumane. In El Salvador, for example, female prisoners are now at 10 times the level they were in 2000, while in Cambodia and Indonesia, numbers have increased six-fold. The data present a worrying picture of uncontrolled growth in numbers, often in countries whose prison systems are being expected to deal with ever-larger influxes, while deprived of the resources to do so.

If we set these new figures within the wider context of what we know about prison conditions and human rights infringements in some parts of the world, the implications are alarming. In Brazil, for example, where around about 44,700 women and girls are now in prison – more than four times the number in 2000 – severe resource constraints make it impossible for the country’s prison system to comply with laws stipulating that women prisoners be housed in separate facilities from men. As a result, some women are held in designated wings of men’s prisons, leading to a risk of assaults and violence from male prisoners and staff, as Human Rights Watch has reported. Female prisoners who are held in women-only prisons endure appalling levels of overcrowding and a lack of access to even basic medical care and treatment.

Our prisons research at ICPR aims to bring about a deeper understanding of the many interwoven factors that combine to drive increases in countries’ use of imprisonment and to find concrete, practical solutions to end the unsustainable increases in imprisonment levels that we have seen in recent history. To do this, we need to focus on providing a much better account of who it is that our states choose to imprison, and why.

This is the aim of our current project, Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment worldwide, which we are undertaking in collaboration with a network of NGOs, academics, lawyers and criminal justice practitioners. The project entails an in-depth exploration of imprisonment in 10 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 10 countries have seen very significant increases in their female prison populations since 2000, as the List shows.

In our report, Prison: Evidence of its use and over-use from around the world, we discuss some of the key themes to be addressed if we are to reverse this worrying trend of rising prison populations. Perhaps the most challenging, yet important, among these themes is the need to ask what purposes imprisonment can reasonably and realistically be expected to serve, both as a matter of general principle and in individual cases.

Women across the world 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, which 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.

A note on the data

Compiling the List and all the comparative and trend data it contains is no mean feat – one that Roy Walmsley has undertaken every year since the World Prison Brief was founded in 2000. Having to work to the same cut-off date for all countries inevitably means that, by the time the List is published, more recent figures will have been released for many countries. People wanting to ensure they have the very latest data available should always check the World Prison Brief website – whether they are looking for data on a particular country or region, or want to see how countries rank globally.

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The use and over-use of prison around the world

Catherine Heard, Director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme, writes on a new report looking at disparities in prison use in ten countries, across five continents.

prison-report-launchMarch 16th saw the launch of our new report, Prison: Evidence of its use and over-use from around the world.

Over 40 guests came to the launch (kindly hosted by the law firm Clifford Chance) to hear about the report’s highlights and watch presentations by experts on imprisonment in Brazil and the Netherlands, two of our featured countries. The event was also addressed by speakers from the international human rights NGO, Fair Trials, who co-published the report and are ICPR’s partner on the wider project – of which the new report is the first output.

The human stories behind the data

Given ICPR’s strong focus on prison statistics (as hosts and compilers of the World Prison Brief) we want to ensure this project never loses sight of the many ways prison affects people: not only those imprisoned, but their families, their wider communities and the people who work in prisons.

That is why a core element of our methodology in the wider project is about mapping the ‘custody journey’ in each country. That means drawing on real cases to understand the lived experience of criminal justice and imprisonment – after arrest, in pre-trial detention, during custodial sentences and after release.

Every human story behind a prison statistic has something to tell us about how a particular country uses imprisonment to respond to crime. The importance of listening to the human story came out clearly from the presentation by Jago Russell and Alex Mik of Fair Trials, about their work with individuals who have experienced unfair treatment in criminal justice systems. They played prison-report-launch2a one-minute animation by the Royal College of Art and filmed interviews with three people who have experienced pre-trial detention in different European countries. These can be viewed on Fair Trials’ website.

I was struck by what Jago had said in his Foreword to our report: ‘Statistics alone can sanitise reality – they do not speak to the violence, intimidation and isolation that are part of the daily experience of custody’.

Brazil’s recurring nightmare

Who better to pick up this theme than Dr Sacha Darke, from the University of Westminster? Sacha has visited 30 Brazilian jails and is an expert in the country’s sad history of uncontrolled growth in prisoner numbers – Brazil has seen prisoner numbers increase twenty-fold from around 30,000 in 1973 to over 600,000 today – and the violence and horror this has unleashed. He showed images from recent massacres and riots in prisons in northeast Brazil (discussed on pages 8 to 10 of our report). He then described the importance of prisoner governance, and organised crime group affiliation in Brazil’s prisons. Organised crime groups are by-products of wholly inadequate staff/prisoner ratios. In many of Brazil’s prisons, the role of staff is essentially to guard the perimeter, while prisoner ‘trusties’ are left to organise, arbitrate and discipline on the inside.

It was clear from Sacha’s presentation that Brazil’s prisons have always been in crisis and that there is no real prospect of enough capacity being built to change this. But, on a brighter note, he spoke of his visits to some of the country’s ‘community prisons’. These first emerged in the seventies in São Paulo and, though few in number, they are very different from the hellish, overcrowded prisons that prevail in Brazil. There is close collaboration between the prisons and prisoners’ families and communities. Many ex-prisoners come back as volunteers. Governors and senior managers are often former prisoners. Sacha referred to Fiona Macaulay’s research on Brazil’s community prisons, which have been praised as exceptionally humane in approach.

The Netherlands: reversing the punitive turn?

It was then over to Professor Francis Pakes (University of Portsmouth) to address the question: how did the Netherlands reverse its punitive turn? As explained in our report (page 21), after decades of low imprisonment levels, the Dutch prisoner rate surged from the late eighties, increasing by 200% and peaking at 134 per 100,000 in 2005. Interestingly, despite a strong Dutch tradition of criminology – and good statistical data – there is no consensus on precisely why the subsequent turnaround happened.

After hearing Francis speak, I was confident that in choosing the Netherlands we’d picked the right country to contrast with the high incarcerators featured in this report. There is a lot we can learn from the Netherlands. Maybe our project will contribute to the on-going inquiry about how the Dutch turned around their prison juggernaut.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Understanding and reducing the risk of imprisonment: interview with Catherine Heard

Report authors

Dr Jessica Jacobson, Director of ICPR
Catherine Heard, Director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme
Helen Fair, a Research Fellow at ICPR·

Read the press release about the report.

The World Prison Brief The statistical data in the report are sourced from the World Prison Brief, compiled by Roy Walmsley and hosted and published by ICPR. This unique and internationally renowned online database contains a wealth of information on prisons and the use of imprisonment in 226 independent countries and dependent territories around the world.

The Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) is based at the Law School of Birkbeck, University of London. ICPR conducts policy-oriented, academically-grounded research on all aspects of the criminal justice system. ICPR’s work on this report forms part of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme.

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