Women have a tough time in prison but some improvement may come from a Thai organisation's initiative, DAVID BILES writes
Women are always under-represented in prison around the world. Australia is no exception but we are increasing the number of women in jail at an alarming rate. Just 27 years ago there were a total of 238 women in prison in the whole of Australia. They then made up 2.5per cent of the national total. At the last count in September 2011 there were 2042 women behind bars, making up just over 7per cent of the total.
These numbers and percentages may seem relatively small, but they show that the rate of increase of women prisoners is far higher than the overall rate, even higher than the rate of increase of Aboriginal people in jail. One could speculate endlessly about why this dramatic change has occurred, but, whatever the explanation, similar changes have occurred in many other nations around the world.
Not only do Australia and many other countries have many more female prisoners than was the case a generation ago, there is a developing appreciation of the fact that their experience of incarceration is often more negative than it is for men. Some of the particular problems experienced by women prisoners relate to pregnancy, child birth, breast feeding and the care of infants, as well as the challenge of maintaining relationships with other children and family members.
(Most Australian jurisdictions today make arrangements for pregnant women prisoners to have their babies in normal hospitals to avoid the stigma of a birth certificate showing the place of birth as a prison, and they also make provision for new mothers to keep their babies with them until they are about 12 months old, but the success of these arrangements will always depend on the staff available to provide the necessary supervision.)
Furthermore, it has often been found that the education, training and recreational opportunities offered to women prisoners are much more limited than the range of programs available to men. This also may apply to work options with women being assigned to traditional women's work like sewing, cleaning and washing clothes, while their male counterparts were engaged with men's work like carpentry, manufacturing or agriculture.
These differences may not be as stark today as they were in the past, but there is still much to be done if anything like equality between the sexes is to be achieved in the treatment of men and women in our jails. However, a significant movement towards this goal has come in the very recent past from an unexpected source, the Kingdom of Thailand.
At the initiative of the Crown Princess of Thailand, a granddaughter of the King, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, an organisation known as ELFI for ''Enhancing the Lives of Female Inmates'' was formed to improve the lot of women in prison in Thailand and elsewhere around the world. ELFI started in a small way, but with support from the Thai government and business community it has become an effective and influential body.
Its founder is a quite remarkable young woman who completed law and political science degrees in Thailand and then completed masters and doctorate degrees at Cornell Law School in New York. Now in her early 30s she works as a prosecutor in a regional centre some two hours flight from Bangkok, and she undertakes various royal duties as well as giving much of her time to ELFI.
The most ambitious project of ELFI was to encourage the preparation of United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, now widely known as the ''Bangkok Rules''. The initial writing of these rules, together with an explanatory commentary, was undertaken at two international meetings in Bangkok in February and November of 2009. I was greatly honoured to be invited by the Thai government to participate in both of these meetings.
The Bangkok Rules were prepared as a supplement to the well-known Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which were adopted by the UN in 1955 as it was felt that these rules did not pay sufficient attention to the special needs of women prisoners. After fairly intensive lobbying by Thai government officials at numerous UN meetings and congresses, the Bangkok Rules were formally adopted by the General Assembly in December 2010.
UN protocols and other resolutions, except those of the Security Council, are not legally enforceable, but they can be extremely influential as no member nation would welcome being found to not comply with any of these instruments. To reach this point, however, it is essential that the relevant protocols are well known to the personnel or agencies responsible for the administration of the activities under consideration. The next step, therefore, in bringing about real improvement in the world is to spread the word as widely as possible, which in this case means circulating the Bangkok Rules to all Australian criminal justice agencies, especially corrections departments and any other agencies or organisations interested in correctional work. The courts and the police should be included as the rules as they are relevant to the sentencing of female offenders and the detention of women in police lock-up facilities.
If there are any readers in any of these groups who have not yet seen a copy of the Bangkok Rules they can be downloaded from the ELFI website (www.elfi.or.th) which is also notable as one of the most attractive and efficient sites I have seen.
I believe that the Bangkok Rules are extremely valuable and I am proud to have played a small part in their preparation, but I think that they should have been more robust in criticising the strip searching of female prisoners. I also regret the silence of the rules on the management of transvestite and transgender prisoners. I accept, however, that documents prepared by groups of writers, especially if they come from different backgrounds and cultures, always involve compromise and no individual can always get his or her own way.