Female Imprisonment in Europe

Harm Reduction International has launched a very interesting and informative report about the incarceration of women for drug offences in Europe and Central Asia. The report was deliberately launched on the opening day of the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which took place in Vienna between the 12th and the 16th of March.

This report is the first one to collate the numbers of the women imprisoned for drug offences in Europe and to gather such important data from fifty-one European and Central Asian countries.  The information was taken from government agencies, academic researchers and civil society organisations and the data presented were the most recent found regarding the total number of incarcerated women as well as the precise number of those incarcerated for drug offences.

The findings of the report are a real ‘cause for alarm’, as the title of the report indicates. Here is a summary of the most important numbers of imprisoned women in Europe and Central Asia:

•    Over 112,000 women are incarcerated across Europe and Central Asia.
•    31,400 women of a total of 112,525 – one in four- are imprisoned across Europe and Central Asia  for drug offences. In some countries more than half of female prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent drug offences.
•    The countries with the highest imprisonment rates of women for drug offences are Tajikistan (70%), Latvia (68%), Portugal (47.6%), Estonia (46), Spain (45.5%), Greece (43.7%), Italy (42.9%), Sweden (41%) and Georgia (34%). The lowest percentage of women in prison for drug offences was found in Poland.
•    Russia incarcerates almost 20,000 women for drugs, a number that represents more than double the total number of women in prison in all the countries of the European Union together.
•    Eastern Europe has the highest number of women in prison (75,908), of which more than 27%  are there for drug offences.
•    In Southern Europe the total number of female prisoners is 11,424, of which 42,2% are sentenced for drug offences. The highest percentages of women in prison for drug related offences are found in Portugal (47,6%) and in Spain (45,4%) followed by Greece (43,7%) and Italy (42,9%). The high number of incarcerated women in Portugal for drugs  is interesting and quite unexpected, given the new legal framework of decriminalisation of all drugs in 2001, which otherwise had many positive outcomes.
•    In Western Europe, there are more than 7,100 women in prison, with just under 17% (1,219) for drug offences. The highest number of imprisoned women is found in Germany and France.
•    In Eurasia the total number of women in prison is 11,577, of which 2,856 are incarcerated for drugs (one quarter of the total female prison population).

The aim of this report was to show the high numbers of incarcerated women in the European and Central Asian region and to ring the alarm for sentencing reform.  The main conclusion of the report was that too many women are in prison for non-violent drug offences and that this fact is of significant concern.

Current drug laws affect women disproportionately, since drug offences are the first cause for which women are imprisoned. Many states across Europe and Central Asia implement strict and punitive drug policies which overlook the real, existing problems that women face, such as poverty, illiteracy, problematic family history including physical and sexual abuse, HIV problems, psychiatric disorders and many more. As stated in the conclusion, women living in poverty are very often unable to pay fines for petty offences, which increases their vulnerability for being detained. It is really alarming that drug dependence does not reduce or change in prison surroundings, but usually increases and perpetuates women’s addiction to substances. In many European countries harm reduction programmes are not even available in prisons.

According to the report’s findings, the offences for which women enter prison are in almost all cases non-violent and in many instances the only reason for incarceration is the possession of small quantities of drugs. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has expressed strong concerns about the issue and the number of women 'imprisoned for drug offences or because of the criminalization of minor infringements, which in some instances seem indicative of women’s poverty’.  The Committee went on to state that the Government should ‘ intensify its efforts to understand the causes for the apparent increase in women’s criminality and to seek alternative sentencing and custodial strategies for minor infringements’.

The report points at the inefficacy and the limitations of criminal law and incarceration with regard to drug laws by making clear that it is a proven fact that repressive or punitive drug policies do not help in reducing the rates of drug use. As noted by the Global Commission on Drug Policy in its 2011 report, ‘many countries that have enacted harsh laws and implemented widespread arrest and imprisonment of drug users and low-level dealers have higher levels of drug use and related problems than countries with more tolerant approaches’.

Given all these data, the report condemns the incarceration of women based on harsh drug laws that criminalise their drug use and especially criminalization which refers to possession for personal use. 

During the 55th UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, the executive director of UNODC  (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) Yuri Fedotov made the statement that all policies in drug treatment should be humane and based on human rights, and that treatment and not punishment is the solution. He also emphasized the importance of OST and NSP treatment in the long process of rehabilitating and reintegrating drug users into society.

The important findings of Harm Reduction International’s report are a real cause of alarm: the law in the majority of the European and central African region fails to tackle the deep rooted problems behind the drug offences and is detached from the real needs of the female population. A massive sentencing reform needs to be undertaken by European governments in order to improve women’s lives and help them recover from their health and psychic problems.

However, there seems to be an encouraging outcome stemming from the 55TH  UN  CND in Vienna, since a resolution on female drug users was adopted for the first time! Central to the resolution was the urgent need to address female-oriented strategies for drug using women at risk. During the negotiations, some countries addressed the issues of women’s vulnerability to HIV, some others the pregnancy clause and childcare language and some others the problems of sexual abuse and stigma. There were some –Russia for example- that were sceptical about the resolution, as they thought that it might cause an extreme positive discriminatory stance towards women. The UNODC resulted in the statement that treatment services for women are often limited and not available, that there is still a big stigma regarding the use of drugs by the female population and that there is a definite need for specialized services that address women’s real problems, including sexual, reproductive and mental health.