Rights for women in prison and the UN Bangkok Rules: A Global Symposium

June 2019

In May, NDRI’s Dr Mandy Wilson had the opportunity, together with colleagues Dr Jocelyn Jones (Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, UWA) and Dr Hannah McGlade (Faculty of Humanities, Curtin), to travel to the US to present on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s involvement with the criminal justice system in Australia, at a symposium on the rights of incarcerated women and the UN Bangkok Rules. The symposium, hosted by the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, brought together experts from around the world working to promote the rights and dignity of female prisoners and offenders. Delegates came from Mexico, Thailand, the UK, East and West Africa, Australia and from a number of states across the US.

The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules),1 adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 2010, comprise 70 rules relating to the treatment of women prisoners and offenders. The Rules supplement the Standard Minimum Rules,2 and recognise the gender-specific needs and realities of females involved with the criminal justice system. These additional rules provide guidance for criminal justice agencies and prison staff on issues such as admission and allocation procedures, healthcare, treatment of minority and Indigenous women, discipline and punishment, search procedures, and pregnancy, breastfeeding and children residing with their mothers in prison.

The purpose of the symposium was for participants to: learn the history and current status of the Rules; showcase the innovative ways the Rules have been incorporated into practice and policy to improve the lives of female prisoners and offenders; and, critically examine where we continue to fall short in meeting the needs and protecting the rights of this diverse group. In addition to the symposium, delegates attended a closed strategic planning meeting. At this meeting, participants considered the scope of the existing Rules for promoting the rights of all women, recommendations for future iterations and next steps for creating a global platform to extend the reach of and increase knowledge about the Bangkok Rules.

In summary, participants were struck by the universality of struggles experienced by imprisoned women around the world, the limitations of the current Rules to protect the rights of gender and sexual minority women, and the inconsistent ways the Rules have been implemented and applied across settings, if at all. However, there was also cause for optimism; advocacy is creating real incremental shifts that are improving the lives of women involved with the criminal justice system and ensuring their rights are protected. With the unprecedented rise in women’s incarceration rates – particularly among those from racial and ethnic minority groups – participants at the symposium committed to work together on a global scale to pursue positive and sustainable reform for women, with the future goal of promoting the uptake of non-punitive alternatives to imprisonment.

1 UN General Assembly, United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules) : note / by the Secretariat, 6 October 2010, A/C.3/65/L.5, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/4dcbb0ae2.html [accessed 4 June 2019]

2 The Standard Minimum Rules first developed in 1955, and now referred to as the Nelson Mandela Rules (2015), were felt to fall short in addressing issues particular to female prisoners and offenders.