Women imprisoned. Lessons to inform the UDHR at 70

There is a striking similarity in the experiences of women in prisons around the world. Their pathways into prison are generally characterised by high rates of trauma and abuse, mental health issues, substance abuse, poverty and social exclusion. We need practice models that have been designed with women in mind.

Years ago a lawyer for the Ghanaian Prison Service told me about the challenges they were facing in women’s imprisonment; the prisons women were housed in were built for men so were not ‘fit for purpose,’ and women were often housed far from their families and communities. Women generally held their families together, and so with them imprisoned far away families would suffer.

Fast forward five years and halfway around the world and I’m talking to a woman who I’ll call Rachel in a New Zealand prison for a research project on case management in women’s prisons. She’s telling me how she’s been trying to look after her son who keeps running away from home and is starting to hang out with the wrong crowd. Prison had been hard for Rachel. She came straight in from the hospital after having a miscarriage and was in shock because she thought she’d get home detention and even though she’s “pretty gangsta” on the outside, she was scared. Now she’s trying to figure out how she can fix the relationship between her son and his Dad so that she can feel like someone is looking after him properly on the outside.

Like many women in prison, Rachel is trying to contend with how to run a household from the inside.

Entering prison in "crisis mode"

The challenges women like Rachel face in prison in New Zealand are similar to those faced by women in prison in Ghana, and throughout the world. While every woman’s story is unique and there are vast differences in prison conditions globally, there is a striking similarity in the experiences of women in prisons around the world. Their pathways into prison are generally characterised by high rates of trauma and abuse, mental health issues, substance abuse, poverty and social exclusion (Bevan and Wehipeihana, 2015; Giordano et al., 2006; Kruttschnitt, 2013; Van Voorhis et al., 2010).

Their experiences of prison are often different to men’s. They often enter prison in “crisis mode” as they try to resolve a whole host of issues related to care responsibilities for children and other family members. Moreover, while in prison they often continue trying to manage households from the inside. The high rates of sexual and physical violence they have often experienced means that prison environments characterised by loud noises, enclosed spaces, and a lack of both control and autonomy often trigger past trauma.

A system mostly designed for 'the universal man'

The experiences of women in prison have historically been hidden on account of their low numbers (they generally make up between four to fourteen percent of prison populations globally) and because crime has been seen as something mostly done by men (McGlue, 2017). On account of this invisibility those women who have come into contact with the criminal justice system have often found themselves within systems designed for men.

In theory, the rights of women in prison have always been protected within international human rights legislation. As Vicki Prais recently wrote in the CHRLP blog, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed 70 years ago, protects people in prison from torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. Since its creation 70 years ago, the UDHR paved the way for more specific guidelines on the protection of prisoners’ rights, the most notable being the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (now known as the Mandela Rules). These rules are not binding on States but have come to be seen as the minimum universal standard.

However, as is often the case with frameworks that are considered ‘universal,’ the universal experience that they were based has traditionally been that of men. The Mandela Rules while affording basic protections for women in prison did not speak adequately to their unique experiences of prison: to their different criminal histories, to their experiences as mothers and carers, and as survivors of extensive abuse. By not adequately spelling out these differences, women’s right to access a system designed specifically to meet their needs have largely remained subsumed under a false idea of ‘the universal man’.

These gaps were recognised in 2010 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the first set of rights-based guidelines specifically focused on women’s prisons: The Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (more commonly known as the Bangkok Rules). These rules cover many of the issues salient for women involved in the Criminal Justice System including healthcare, staff training, treatment services, risk assessment and classification systems, and the implementation of policies and procedures that recognise women’s caretaking roles.

The Bangkok Rules and changing the practice models

One area that was given less attention within the Bangkok Rules is that of the practice models used in women’s prisons and non-custodial settings, which guide how staff work with women. If you spend any time in women’s prisons or with staff who work in these places, you will eventually hear some variation on the refrain that women are hard to work with because they’re ‘needy,’ they question rules all the time (both in terms of design and application), and they take up too much staff time ‘just wanting to talk.’

Rather than being a problem with women though, this is of course a problem with practice models being used that have been designed with men in mind. We know that generally speaking, women have a different way of interacting than men. To feel that they have some semblance of control over their lives in prison, women often need to understand why the rules are the way they are. They’re often grappling with complex issues and need to talk about these to arrive at a solution. Relationships matter to them and having people they can trust, who will listen and support them, is crucial for their wellbeing (Bevan, 2017; UNODC, 2008; Bloom, Owen & Covington, 2002; Schram, Koons-Witt & Morash, 2004).

But practice models including case management and probation practices have generally not been designed with these characteristics in mind. For example by not allowing sufficient contact between women and staff for women to feel supported. In the New Zealand case[1] when women were able to build strong, supportive relationships with staff they had much more trust in these systems. This was the case for Rachel who talked about how her case manager was always there to help her through the challenges with her son, and this helped her learn new ways to manage difficulties.

In recognition to the harms caused by women’s imprisonment, the Bangkok Rules also stress that gender-sensitive alternatives to pre-trial detention and custodial sentences should be used wherever possible. Probation practice models therefore need to be designed with women in mind if these efforts are to succeed in keeping women out of prison for example by having staff specially trained to work with women and focus on building trusting, collaborative relationships.

We’ve come a long way in designing rehabilitation and reintegration services that work for women, but attention needs to move beyond this to also encompass all aspects of how staff interact with women. In the area of programme delivery, research has shown that the therapeutic alliance between people in prison and programme delivery staff is responsible for over half of the positive changes people achieve through programmes. (Miller, Duncan and Hubble, cited in Cagney and McMaster, 2013) - relationships are crucial, especially for women.

Trauma Informed Practice

One area where progress is being made is with the implementation of Trauma Informed Practice models globally. This is an approach to prison and probation management in which staff are trained to understand the impacts of trauma on women, and are taught to effectively and empathetically work with women experiencing trauma symptoms. With regards to day-to-day prison management this is as simple as making sure staff explain rules, use calm rather than commanding language, and provide women with choice where possible.

However, Trauma Informed Practice is just one aspect of a gender-responsive practice model; it’s not just about designing a system that works to mitigate the negative effects of women’s prior victimisation, but is about designing systems that build positively on women’s strengths such as their desire to build strong, healthy relationships with staff, other women, and their families and communities on the outside. Their desire for self-expression and connection is not a ‘problem’ as it is often conceived, but is what is going to support them to desist on the outside.

So as we reflect on the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UDHR, we need to continue to push for human rights approaches that take women as the starting point, not as an added one. The UDHR still provides the necessary protection framework but the development of any ‘soft law rules’ or guidelines to its implementation need to be created with women’s experiences in mind if a human rights-based approach is to truly become a reality.


[1] In New Zealand’s prisons, people have access to a case manager who assesses the factors driving a person’s offending and plans a programme of actions and work to support them to address these factors and plan for release. See here for more information about case management in women’s prisons.

Bevan, M. and Wehipeihana, N. (2015). Women’s Experiences of Re-offending and Rehabilitation. New Zealand Department of Corrections.

Bevan, M. (2017). Collaborative, relational and responsive: Principles for the case management of women in prison, Practice: The New Zealand Corrections Journal. 5(2): 12-17.

Bloom, B., Owen, B., and Covington, S. (2002). Gender-responsive strategies: Research, practice and guiding principles for women offenders. Washington DC: National Institute of Corrections

Cagney, M. and McMaster, K. (2013) ‘Men’s Intervention Programs’, DVRCV: International Interventions. 1, Autumn/Winter, pp13-17.

Giordano, P., Deines, J. A. & Cernkovich, S. (2006). In and Out of Crime: A life course perspective on girls’ delinquency. In Heimer, K. and Kruttschnitt, C. (Eds.), Gender and Crime, New York: New York University Press, 17-40.

Kruttschnitt, C. (2013). Gender and Crime. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 291-308.

McGlue, H. (2017). Addressing the imbalance: Enhancing women’s opportunities to build offence free lives through gender responsivity. The New Zealand Corrections Journal. 5(2): 6-11

Schram, P. J., Koons-Witt, B. A., and Morash, M. (2004). Management Strategies When Working with Female Prisoners. Women & Criminal Justice. 15(2), 25-50

UNODC (2008). Handbook for Prison Managers and Policymakers on Women and Imprisonment. Criminal Justice Handbook Series. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Van Voorhis, P., Wright, E. M., Salisburn, E. & Bauman, A. (2010). Women’s Risk Factors and their Contributions to Existing Risk/Needs Assessment: The Current Status of a Gender Responsive Supplement, Criminal Justice Behaviour, 37 261.

About the author

Marianne is currently a senior researcher at the New Zealand Department of Corrections. Her research focuses largely on the experiences of women in the criminal justice system and has conducted a range of qualitative studies looking into women's pathways into offending, the dynamics of women's family violence offending, and best practices in the case management, rehabilitation and reintegration of women. She has a background in international development and has worked in Togo, Liberia and Ghana on mainstreaming gender into Security Sector Reform processes.