By Elena González-Conde Linares

Take a look at this picture. What you see are the 11 cabinets where we hold the files of all 992 people that Prisoners Abroad is currently helping. 11 cabinets and 33 drawers where we keep our client’s information until they are released from prison. Now, look at the photo again and focus on two drawers. The files of all the women that we are currently helping would fit in those two drawers. But this is no magic trick; actually all of our female clients’ files would fit in two drawers. Because women make up only 7% of our clients. So, if the numbers are so low, why do we devote so much time to talking about women’s special needs and their circumstances?

Men make up around 90% of the world’s prison population. This means that all the prison systems and the rules that govern them are built with men –and not women- in mind. The archetypical prisoner is not a woman. Women are quite clearly a minority group that has very specific needs. Unfortunately, most criminal justice systems fail to recognise and address these needs in a meaningful manner. So, when women are arrested, the system which is going to process them hasn’t got the mechanisms in place to protect them; in fact until 2010 there were no specific international standards to oblige states to ensure gender-sensitive treatment in prison. The UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners (Bangkok Rules), were only adopted eight years ago.

All of our clients –male and female- experience great levels of isolation; not only because prison is a very isolating experience, but also because, being far from home, the number of visits that they can receive from families and loved ones is dramatically reduced; the fact that in the prison there may not be many Britons makes imprisonment even more difficult to manage. Talking to another person in your own language helps to pass the time but also to navigate the system better. However, considering that there are only 73 British women imprisoned abroad, if you are a woman, the likelihood of having other British women in the same prison, is next to nothing.  This means that some women who are in remote places like Taiwan or Indonesia may not ever have the chance to speak with another British person, adding to already daunting solitude. At Prisoners Abroad we are always trying our best to help our clients overcome this situation - by sending magazines and newspapers to everyone but especially to those who experience the highest levels of isolation.

Vulnerability can be measured in many ways, one of them being one’s health. However, there are many other circumstances that can affect one’s ability to survive in a prison, such as one’s age, or being pregnant. For these clients, we are always trying to find ways to make their imprisonment more bearable. At Prisoners Abroad, we help pregnant women with extra funding so that they can buy fresh food to keep healthy, we contact them more frequently and, if necessary, we liaise with consular staff to ensure that their needs are being met.

The Bangkok Rules explain that gender-specific health-care services should include not only pregnancy care but also HIV prevention and treatment, suicide and self-harm prevention, substance abuse treatment, and mental health care. However, many countries fall short of these standards, leaving women more vulnerable to certain health conditions like cervical cancer.  At Prisoners Abroad we have a medical fund which is designed to pay for essential medical treatment when the local authorities do not help. Over the course of the last year, we have covered the expenses for gynaecological treatment as well as age-specific care.

So, these are some of the reasons, why we devote so much time to discussing women. When it comes to imprisonment, most prison systems fail to acknowledge the fact that whilst women prisoners are one of the vulnerable groups that have specific needs and requirements, most prison regimes worldwide are designed with male prisoners in mind.  Small gestures like sending more reading materials, liaising with the local authorities or funding life-saving treatment, can help to level the already existing differences. Those two drawers in the picture contain files which present us with singular challenges. Singular challenges require new inventive solutions. This is why we devote so much time to talking about women’s special needs and their circumstances.