Written by Emma Jones

It is common knowledge that, over the last few decades, the numbers of women and girls that have been given prison sentences worldwide have drastically increased. As the world has progressed, changes in societies have brought unintended consequences; President Nixon’s 1971 ‘War on Drugs’ campaign in America, for example, resulted in more people being convicted of drug crime than ever, 40% of criminals being female [1]. The outcome of the political change, since then, is that the number of especially women ending up in prison has vastly increased. Since 2000, the number of female prisoners has risen by 53% [2] which means, to date, there are now at least one million incarcerated women around the world. Regarding this, however, the question that becomes stuck in people's minds is: How do women in prison, as a minority group, along with their families, cope?

In recent years, various researchers and government departments, such as the Ministry of Justice, have extensively and carefully gathered information about the differences between men and women in prison. Derek Kreager, Sociology and Criminology professor at Pennsylvania State University, points out that women are often more likely to be caring for children, in comparison to their male counterparts during imprisonment [3]. However, this greatly affects the mental and psychological wellbeing of both the parent and the child; a mother that is locked away could face the devastating experience of having her child taken from her and legally put into foster care. This can be equally traumatising to the mother and child.

Women also differ a lot to men, in that they are much more likely to be victims as well as offenders. As a highly vulnerable group, typically, they are prone to various forms of abuse, with around 30% more cases of domestic and/ or sexual abuse than men, according to the Prison Reform Trust [4]. This usually results in women, who have been put in prison later in life, experiencing more severe cases of victimisation from their peers. This is often a major problem in worldwide prisons, especially in parts of the world including South East Asia. These differences, to name a few, are a mere snapshot of what prison can be like for a woman, which is why Prisoners Abroad is focusing on women this month.

Data from Prisoners Abroad’s Statistics (2017-2018) shows that women are far less likely to receive support from partners/ spouses than their male counterparts; only 13 out of 134 women in prison, that Prisoners Abroad care for, have this form of network to support them. This shocking figure implies that women in prisons abroad are especially isolated and vulnerable, considering the general lack of help they are getting due to having fewer contacts. This differs hugely from women’s male counterparts, with 316 out of 1487 male prisoners getting support from their partners. Prisoners Abroad wishes to help all their service users, giving them as much aid and guidance as possible while they are suffering thousands of miles away from anyone they know. We provide various services for women’s needs: these include keeping in touch with close relatives, arranging pen-pals to make prison life more bearable, arranging visits in prisons or for specific health needs.

Family and friends are often most appreciative of the regular Family Support Groups that are based all across the UK and an excellent way to find consolation and updates on how their loved one is coping in prison. In fact, Prisoners Abroad’s database shows that around 93% of attendees of the Family Support Groups felt that they could cope with the emotional impact of imprisonment. Further, 96% of those who attended felt less isolated about their circumstances than they did beforehand.

Meanwhile, having a pen-pal can mean a great deal to someone because they have the chance to write to somebody back in the UK who can inform them about news otherwise not available in prison. It can also put their mind at ease because they have somebody they can write to, which passes the time and has a positive effect on their well-being. This is especially meaningful to a lot of the women that Prisoners Abroad looks after as they generally have fewer networks to rely on, in comparison to most men in prison.

My pen-pal helps me to forget the time I've spent in prison, and gives me support to cope in such a place

– Female prisoner in Brazil

So, every year Prisoners Abroad’s constant diligence and utter compassion provides the answers as to how female prisoners and their families manage in times of hardship. The services that it offers may not seem much to us but the whole world to many female inmates around the world, along with their families.

I didn't know they existed before my relative was put into prison. The most useful part of the service was to be able to telephone any time you feel anxious. They always make time for you and answer your questions. From the very first phone call, I felt I was no longer alone

– Relative of female prisoner in Portugal

 [1] http://fortune.com/2015/12/10/prison-reform-women/ accessed on 08/08/2018

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/women-prisoners-rise-prison-around-the-world-institute-criminal-policy-research-birkbeck-a8044811.html accessed on 08/08/2018 accessed on 08/08/2018

[3]https://news.psu.edu/story/433229/2016/10/21/research/studying-effects-incarceration-women-and-their-families accessed on 08/08/2018

[4] http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Women/whywomen.pdf accessed on 08/08/2018