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Women in prison deserve better treatment

16 February 2023

Written by Lillian Artz,  Veronica Filippeschi and Nokwanda Nzimande

The global female prison population has grown by a staggering 53% over the past decade. Yet little has been done to improve the system so that it supports those whom it incarcerates. South Africa is no different.

The little information we have about women in South African prisons speaks of intolerable overcrowding, unhygienic sleeping conditions, and minimal health and mental health care services, including ‘medical neglect’.

This comes in addition to pervasive issues with deteriorating infrastructure. And the impact of imprisoning women on the back of the already dire socio-economic conditions of the families that women support and leave behind when imprisoned.

Two reports on conditions but no change

In 2015 Constitutional Court Judge Cameron – now the Inspecting Judge for Correctional Services – released a harrowing report based on a visit to a prison where women were detained.

“Ninety-four women were crowded into a poorly aerated room. The women shared beds or slept on the floor on thin mattresses. The mattresses were stinking. There was no working toilet, a clogged sink drain, and only cold water. They showed us tattered and torn sheets and blankets infested with lice. They noted that the cell was also infested with cockroaches. Finally, the women complained that as remand detainees, they were not afforded library books or magazines to read. Fights often broke out, and they attribute this to extreme boredom”.  

A year later, in a 2016 Public Service Commission Report, the condition of cells in South African prisons was referred to as “untenable”, “highly congested and cluttered”, and “untidy and not fit for human habitation”.

Women throughout Africa are prosecuted for a range of ‘offences’ based on their gender and sexuality, entrenched poverty, sex outside of marriage, obtaining abortions, HIV transmission, same-sex relationships, as well as ‘witchcraft’, adultery (even after a reported rape), livestock and produce theft, and the inability to post bail or pay a fine.

Global shifts point to a need for change

Arbitrary detention and the lack of legal representation increase the already deep inequalities associated with imprisoning African women.

It has been 11 years since the adoption of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders. Also referred to as the “Bangkok Rules”, the agreement recognised that given global disparities, not all rules could be applied equally in all places and at all times. Still, it encouraged Member States to adopt legislation to establish alternatives to imprisonment and to give priority to the financing of such systems and the development of the mechanisms needed for their implementation.

However, little has materialised over a decade after the adoption of these rules and their circulation globally.

Now the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), supported by the European Union, the City of Geneva, and the government of Canada, are working to improve the conditions of women in detention as well as why women come in conflict with the law in the first place.
Women a small percentage of the global prison population

According to the World Prison Population List published in October 2021, more than 10.77 million people are held in penal institutions worldwide, either as pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners or having been convicted and sentenced. More than  714,000 were women and girls, making up nearly 7% of the global prison population.

According to the World Female Imprisonment List published in October 2022, the number of women in prisons has grown by almost 60% since 2000, even as the male prison population has only increased by 22% and the global prison population growth has been around 30%.

In South Africa, the latest Department of Correctional Services (DCS) data shows that in the 2021/22 financial year, the general prison population was 143 223, with a bed space of 108 804. Of these, 3,724 are incarcerated women, most of whom are sentenced for economic-related crimes.

These spikes come amid ongoing socio-economic inequality in South Africa even as the country deals with the impacts of COVID-19. To this end, the DCS budgets remain inadequate, and prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding and generally poor and ageing infrastructure.
Address reasons women end up in prison

Whilst the Correctional Services Act of 1998 prescribes the obligation to create a gender-sensitive environment in prisons, and South Africa endorses the Bangkok Rules, clear and concrete regulations on how to improve the treatment and conditions of women in prison have yet to be realised.

Through the SA-EU Dialogue Facility, we can take this initiative even further. We can encourage Southern African Development Community (SADC) partners to implement the same monitoring guidelines to improve the conditions of women and girls in detention. And address why women conflict with the law in the first place.

Many women in prison lived on the margins of society with poor health and healthcare access even before prison. They’ve been exposed to repeated sexual violence and domestic abuse by those they should have been able to trust: their parents, their neighbours, their teachers, and their partners. Mothers have had children taken away after being sentenced and lost ‘in the system’.

It is women like these that the Bangkok Rules hope to protect. These rules are significant as they provide guidelines on the admission and conditions of detention. This includes the unique safety and security, rehabilitation, and health and mental health concerns of women. They also promote the proper documentation and adequate research on incarcerated women. For the South African context, the Bangkok Rules underscore the cardinal constitutional protection against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.           

The domestication of the Bangkok Rules into formative guidelines appropriate for the South African context is long overdue. We must act swiftly to action it.

Lillian Artz, Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town; Veronica Filippeschi, Senior Advisor, Association for the Prevention of Torture; and, Nokwanda Nzimande, Researcher, South African National Preventive Mechanism Unit at the SAHRC.

Source: Health-e News

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