What happens when a woman goes to prison? New checklists aim to reduce the price she pays

Copenhagen and Abano Terme, Italy, 4 October 2011

A new joint publication by WHO/Europe and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime addresses the special needs of women by providing checklists for decision-makers, senior prison managers and prison health staff to monitor the status of health care provided to women in prison.

“When a woman goes to prison, she enters a male-dominated society in which the needs and conditions of women are not taken into account”, said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “The result is that women pay a much higher price with their health than men do. Nevertheless, there are immediate steps that would make a difference.”

Although women constitute a very small proportion of the total prison population, on average 4–5% globally, the number of women in prison is increasing rapidly. About 100 000 women are imprisoned in the WHO European Region on any given day. Women who are sent to prison bring with them a complex set of problems, needs, anxieties, traumas, illnesses and types of dependence. A prison setting worsens these problems and increases the vulnerability of most of these women.

A woman going into prison is likely to be a mother and is usually the primary or sole carer for her children. While she is imprisoned, her family may break up, resulting in her children ending up in state care institutions or alternative care. She is also more likely to harm herself or commit suicide than male prisoners, which is the reverse of what happens in the community. She has probably had traumatic experiences, often starting already in early childhood, such as sexual, mental and physical abuse or violence. Half of imprisoned women have also experienced domestic violence. Women who enter prison suffer from mental health problems to a higher degree than both male prisoners and the general population, with rates as high as 90%. The situation and needs of women in prison usually differ greatly from the male prisoners. Prisons can and should be a setting in which women feel supported and in which their health and other needs are adequately addressed.

Immediate action has to be taken – a checklist

Women’s health in prison: action guidance and checklists to review current policies and practices is due for release on 7 October 2011 in Abano Terme, Italy at a meeting of WHO Counterparts for Prison Health. The checklist in the document aims to ensure greater safety and better quality health care and to assist in reviewing current policies and practices relating to women’s health in prisons. It enables three interconnected target groups to monitor the status of the health care available to women prisoners:

  • decision-makers and policy-makers, in reviewing current policies and legislation;
  • senior prison managers, in reviewing current practices and quality; and
  • prison health staff, in reviewing current health care services.

The publication points out that the services and approaches can only succeed if the criminal justice system is seen to be serving the interests of women in its care and meets their gender-specific health and other needs. Every prison required to house women prisoners should have a written policy showing that:

  • the practices in that prison are sensitive to the special needs of women and that staff members have undergone gender-specific training;
  • whenever children are involved, their needs and best interests be clearly seen as the first and main consideration in the provisions made for them.

WHO hopes that a more planned and systematic approach can now be taken to address gender-insensitivity and deficiencies in the provisions for women in prison. A starting-point would to be check current policies and practices, which can be aided by using the checklist aimed specifically at those who can make a difference.

For more information, please contact:

Brenda Van den Bergh
Technical Officer
HIV Prevention and Prison Health
E-mail: bvb@euro.who.int
Tel.: +45 30 61 14 90

Tina Kiær
Communications Officer
Noncommunicable Diseases and Health Promotion
E-mail: tki@euro.who.int
Tel.: +45 24 91 08 44

For further information, journalists may also contact:

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
Fabienne Hariga
Senior Expert
HIV/AIDS Section
E-mail: Fabienne.hariga@unodc.org
Tel.: +43 69914594292