The Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) has reported that from 2006 to 2015 the global female prison population has increased by 50%.

A few of us from Prisoners Abroad recently went to a talk organised by the ICPR, hoping to find reasons for why there has been such a huge increase in such a small amount of time and perhaps more importantly what harm reduction policy reforms could be put in place in order to reverse this trend. Prisoners Abroad is currently supporting 76 British women imprisoned abroad, this is about 7% of the current number of people we support reflecting the percentage of women in the global prison population. Although this seems like a small number, as a growing area of the prison population, women prisoners and their unique needs should not be forgotten. Currently, most criminal justice reforms have a focus on the needs of men.

The Panel* highlighted that the highest percentage of offences leading to the incarceration of women are for drug possession or drug involvement. This is also true of the women who are supported by Prisoners Abroad. This is perpetuated by the ‘war on drugs’ which leads to disproportionally high sentences for drug offences. It is more common that men play a central role within the drug trade, and with women often being bullied or forced into taking the blame for their male relatives or partners, arrests have little or no impact on breaking the drug trafficking chain. Of all women imprisoned in Thailand, 82% are there for drug offences. Conditions in Thailand result in women having to share cells with up to 30 other people and food is sparse, particularly for foreign nationals who have no family members living locally to bring provisions to subsidise their diet. It is these instances when the Prisoners Abroad Survival grant is so important.

The Panel discussed how the global female prison population predominantly consists of women from disadvantaged backgrounds. Shockingly, 35% of the global population have experienced domestic violence and three times more likely to have faced some kind of sexual abuse. Women are often victims of worse crimes then what they are incarcerated for. Therefore it is so important especially for women incarcerated far from any outside support network to have opportunities for communication and mental stimulation.

Women in prison around the world are much more likely than men to lose the relationships with their families after arrest, as globally there is a larger stigma attached to incarcerated women, than incarcerated men. Women can be shunned by their family and the wider community, giving them few prospects after release. This is exacerbated further if you are a foreign national and have little means to communicate with family back home; freepost envelopes that Prisoners Abroad provide are able to alleviate some of this loss.

The panel also stressed the issues facing women and their children; women in prison face separation from their children, with 6 out 10 women in prison globally having dependent children. As women are separated from their children for long periods of time, this drives families apart and begins to ruin lives longer-term. Globally, there are few healthcare provisions in prisons for pregnant women. Nevertheless, women give birth in prison, which results in offspring growing up in prison. Infrastructure in many jails does not take into account women’s needs; in India there are no female prison guards and as such it is unlikely that female prisoner’s voices will be heard. This also leaves them much more vulnerable to sexual violence.

Women have unique needs, of which you can see are more often than not overlooked in the criminal justice system. The considerable increase of women in prison means it is now crucial for countries around the world to take this into account when deciding criminal justice reforms and crucial for Prisoners Abroad to be able to continue our work supporting these women.


Written by Daisy Badham


*Thanks to the ICPR and the Panel who included:
Marie Nougier, International Drug Policy Consortium
Teresa Njoroge, Clean Start, Kenya
Madhurima Dhanuka, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, India
Dr Jo Peden, Consultant, Health and Justice Team, Public Health England


The full report is available on the ICPR website:
http://www.icpr.org.uk/publications-team/international-prisons-research.aspx