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Number of Incarcerated Women Worldwide Rises by 60% Since 2000

The World Female Imprisonment List was published earlier this month by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck University (London), providing a snapshot of the global female prison populations, as well as an analysis of trends into some insights into the causes for their incarceration.

The list, produced by the same researchers that create the World Prison Brief, primarily uses national prison administration data as a primary source, it welcomes submissions from civil society that may have more details, particularly in nations that haven’t updated their prison records for a long time.

While women and girls only make up 6.9% of the global prison population, the List outlined a stark 60% rise in the female prison population since 2000; male prisoner numbers only increased by 20% in the same time period.

In both Asia and Oceania, the total number of female prisoners has more than doubled since 2000. Europe, in contrast, has seen a fall (of 13%) in the female prison population. The country with the highest proportion of female prisoners is Hong Kong (19.7%), followed by Qatar (14.7%).

This increase has risen the fastest in Central and South America, as well as South East Asia:

  • Cambodia – there are more than nine times as many female prisoners today than in 2000
  • Indonesia – more than seven and a half times
  • El Salvador – more than seven times

The countries with the highest rate of female prisoners (per 100,000) are:

  • United States of America – 64
  • Thailand – 47
  • El Salvador – 42


TalkingDrugs spoke with Catherine Heard (CH), the Director of the World Prison Research Programme, and Helen Fair (HF), the World Prison Brief researcher, to get some more details on how drugs come into this equation. They raised the interconnection of structural inequality, poverty and criminalisation of low-level drug crimes as primary drivers for incarceration.

What's driving the rise of these incarcerations? Are women somehow becoming more violent? 

HF: Women are certainly not becoming more violent. Most of the world’s female prisoners have been accused or convicted of non-violent offences like shop-lifting, soliciting for prostitution, and low-level drug crimes. Because of poverty, they will be unable to pay fines often levied for such offences, or afford bail pre-trial, making prison more likely. Many women are serving short prison sentences, despite clear evidence that even brief spells of incarceration cause lasting and severe harm to women and their children.


Are there some wider trends underlying this increase that are worrying?

CH: Many of the reasons for the rapid increase in female prison populations have poverty and structural inequality as root causes.  Other causes include an absence of woman-centred support services, diversion programmes or alternatives to custody.  Women who end up in prison are more likely to have experienced trauma, abuse or mental health problems. Imprisonment only adds to their psychological distress. Prison systems are usually ill-equipped to deal with their trauma.


How have you seen the war on drugs play into this increase?

CH: Yes, tougher drug enforcement practices are a major factor behind the over-incarceration of women around the world. Several countries’ legal systems don’t distinguish between less serious forms of conduct like possession of smaller quantities for personal use and larger scale trafficking offences. This places many women at risk of lengthy sentences despite their involvement being quite marginal.  


Are drugs a driver for female incarcerations?

CH: Yes. The countries that have seen the most rapid rises in their female prison populations, or where there are the largest numbers of female prisoners, have in many cases waged a very tough ‘war on drugs’ in recent years. This has involved zero tolerance policies to even minor offences.

These policies were exported from the USA into Latin America and Central America, and are also seen in Thailand and other Asian countries. Drug offences by women are overwhelmingly at the lower end of the seriousness scale and do not involve violence.

We have also seen a general trend towards greater use of mandatory minimum sentences and increasingly long custodial sentences, especially to punish repeat offenders who commit drug offences. This trend of growing punitiveness in countries' legal systems has certainly played a part in the upward trend in female imprisonment.


Given your work in monitoring prison populations, do you feel your research makes the case for abolition, or whether institutions like prisons are doing anything to reduce or bring improve access to justice in countries?

CH: We feel that our research makes the case for radically reducing society's reliance on incarceration, so that for the few individuals for whom there is currently no option but a period of imprisonment, there can be a far better resourced environment, in which rehabilitation is possible.


What do you hope the Female Imprisonment List can achieve?

HF: We see a pressing need for every government, and all communities, to ask who is in prison and why they are there, and then to think long and hard about what that reveals about our social, political and economic structures. So we hope that the List, by revealing the rapid increase in the number of women in prison, will raise awareness of the serious harm to society that this will inevitably cause.

The overuse of imprisonment – a relatively modern phenomenon – just perpetuates state and structural violence, entrenches inequality, and steals resources away from building stronger safer communities. We urge policy makers in countries where female prisoner numbers are rising especially dramatically to wake up to this reality and look for alternative ways to tackle the underlying problems of poverty, ill health, social stigma and marginalisation.

We also hope that the quality and timeliness of data on prison populations will continue to improve. The World Prison Brief and the related prison population lists are only as good as the data they rely on. There are still a significant number of countries that do not publish their prisons data: in such cases we gather what information we can from other sources such as national reports to UN bodies. This is in our view unacceptable. Transparency on who is being held in prison, for what reason and for how long is vital to ensure prison systems are properly resourced and governments can be held to account for their justice policies and for the safety of the – often highly vulnerable – people in their prisons.


The List is available for download below.

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