Women prisoners

COPCAT Shorts – Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures Toolkit

Occasionally something really good just slips right by, leaving you wondering how you ever missed it in the first place? One would think that, battened down in the nation’s capital while waiting for life to jump-start, there would be precious little else to do than to keep up with current developments in the wonderful world of human rights law and criminal justice.

Alas, on this occasion it was the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) to somehow fly so swiftly and stealthily low so as to successfully avoid the radar reflectors of Ontario.

Not to worry, published just a few short weeks ago via a high-profile webinar launch, UNODC and TIJ unleashed on the coronavirus-locked-down world a highly rated Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures. While not the most flashily or zippily titled resource, it most certainly does what it says on the tin.

A deeper dive into this new publication reveals an abundance of useful advice and guidance on alternatives to prison at all trial stages. Its introduction offers a depressingly succinct summary of the toolkit’s overall purpose:

Women are the fastest growing prison population across the world. As further outlined in this toolkit, poverty, discrimination, violence and a punitive legal responses are some of the key underlying causes behind the increase in female imprisonment. The harmful and negative impact of imprisonment on women, their families and communities has been widely documented.

More hopefully, it continues:

Since the adoption of the United Nations Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules), which complements the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on Non-custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules) and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), there has been increased attention on gender-responsive treatment of women in prison. This toolkit seeks to provide support and guidance on taking steps to ensure that women in contact with the law are not detained or imprisoned unnecessarily and that detention is used as a measure of last resort. The starting point for this toolkit is to take the least interventionist approach possible, acknowledging that in certain situations contact with the criminal justice system can be harmful to women. (1)

The 90-page publication is accordingly divided into the following three primary sections:

  • Identifying the needs of women in contact with the law;
  • Ensuring gender equality in the use and application of non-custodial measures;
  • Special categories of women.

The second section is the most comprehensive part of the toolkit, focusing on the different trial and sentencing stages in any given criminal justice process, accentuating the availability of non-custodial measures at all such phases. In so doing, it closely examines an array of alternatives to detention such as bail, arrest and supervised release in the pre-trial stage, combined with non-custodial sentences such as fines, suspended sentences, deferred sentences, home detention, community treatment orders, and community service orders during the later sentencing instances.

More impressively still, UNODC and TIJ are currently hosting a series of webinars under the title ‘Gender-Responsive Criminal Justice and Prison Reform‘, which run until 24 June 2020. Please click on the link above or see the flyer below for more detailed information:

As the flyer itself states:

Criminal justice and prison systems face unprecedented challenges that are amplified by the COVID-19 global pandemic. In a system primarily designed for men, gender-responsive approaches are crucial to ensure no one is left behind. Sustained action is needed to address the disproportionate increase in the imprisonment of women, and the lack of gender-specific health care and social reintegration programmes in prisons.

Readers could do much worse than idle away a few well-spent hours in the company of these virtual and non-virtual resources.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime are certainly no strangers to these pages, despite the organization’s somewhat deceptive moniker. The website has previously thrown a spotlight on its other first-class materials, including on the Nelson Mandela Rules and the importance of internal inspection of places of detention. In a word, UNODC continues to place into the public domain many excellent criminal justice-related materials with an invaluable human rights bent.

The Thailand Institute of Justice has similarly authored multiple first-class publications, not least the widely known and highly respected Global Prison Trends series, which it co-publishes with Penal Reform International.

If you were at a loss with what to do with yourself today, dear quarantined readers, then this short summary may have given you at least a couple of useful ideas. Apart from the endless house-work, full-time employment, and home-schooling your multiple children that is to say…

No matter, thank you for your visit. It will get better.

School Closed – Travis Wise (2020).

Download the publication, Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures.

Find out more about TIJ and UNODC’s global webinar series on ‘Gender-Responsive Criminal Justice and Prison Reform‘.

Read the Executive Summary of Global Prison Trends 2020 and the full report.

View other recently published prison-related materials with a focus on women and deprivation of liberty.

Posted by mp in Prisons, Tools, Violence Against Women, Women prisoners

Women in Prison – New Publication

A newly published tool, Women in prison: mental health and well-being – a guide for prison staff, landed on our shelves this past week courtesy of Penal Reform International and the Prison Reform Trust.

According to the accompanying press release, the purpose of the publication is as follows:

“People in prison have a disproportionately high rate of poor mental health, and research shows these rates are even higher for women in prison. While primary care remains the responsibility of healthcare professionals, frontline prison staff play an important role in protecting and addressing mental health needs of women in prison.

Penal Reform International (PRI), in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), has published a guide for prison and probation staff to help them understand how prison life can affect a person’s mental health, with a focus on women. The guide aims to break down the stigma and discrimination attached to poor mental health, especially for women in prison.”

If one considers the pervasiveness of mental health issues in Canadian prisons, both among men and women, the utility of the new publication is immediately apparent. Only this past month, the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada expressed distinct concerns about the provision of overall health care services in the country’s federal prisons in his 2018-2019 Annual Report, including from an all-important right to health perspective.

Helpfully, the new guide also includes a checklist based on international human rights standards aimed to help with the implementation of key aspects of prison reform and advocacy initiatives, which can be found in the appendix of the said publication. The checklist covers issues such as alternatives to detention, healthcare provision, treatment inside prison, individualized treatment, contact with the outside world, prison discipline, children in prison, staffing and research.

It bears noting that the new publication aptly complements the various other tools co-issued by Penal Reform International on the treatment of women in detention in recent times, several of which have been highlighted on this website. Publications have included the Guidance Document on the UN Nelson Mandela Rules, its Toolbox on the Bangkok Rules and Mental health in prison: A short guide for prison staff.

In summary, Penal Reform International and the Prison Reform Trust have made another highly practical contribution to actors engaged and interested in penal-related human rights matters.


Download Women in prison: mental health and well-being – a guide for prison staff.

Penal Reform International’s other useful tools can be found on this website under ‘Other Resources’.

Readers may also be interested in the following publications, Places of Deprivation of Liberty and Gender and Preventing & Addressing Sexual & Gender-Based Violence in Places of Deprivation of Liberty.

The 2018-2019 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada can be downloaded in English and French.

Posted by mp in Prisons, Tools, Women prisoners

Canada’s National Travesty – Prison Indigenization

The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population has been described as being “nothing short of a national travesty.”

This highly damning indictment was advanced by Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, the country’s federal prison ombudsperson, in a news release issued on 21 January 2020.

Down Under
Light in the Darkness by Drew Douglas (2007).

The Correctional Investigator stated:

“Four years ago, my Office reported that persons of Indigenous ancestry had reached 25% of the total inmate population. At that time, my Office indicated that efforts to curb over-representation were not working.  Today, sadly, I am reporting that the proportion of Indigenous people behind bars has now surpassed 30%.”

In the news release Dr. Zinger suggests that surpassing the 30% mark indicates a deepening Indigenization of Canada’s correctional system. 

In the absence of any domestic OPCAT monitoring body in Canada, the Correctional Investigator plays a vital role in monitoring the treatment and conditions of federal prisoners in the country. Dr. Zinger has repeatedly called on Canada to sign and ratify the OPCAT.

Shockingly, the Correctional Investigator stressed that the numbers are even more troubling for Indigenous women, who now account for 42% of the women prisoner population in Canada, despite just forming a small percentage of the overall population. He added that the federal prison service seems impervious to change and unresponsive to the needs, histories and social realities behind high rates of Indigenous offending.

What is more, the experiences of many Indigenous persons in federal facilities are mostly far from positive, rehabilitative episodes.

It was observed that year after year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator has documented that Indigenous prisoners are disproportionately classified and placed in maximum security institutions, over-represented in use of force and self-injurious incidents, and historically, were more likely to be placed and held longer in segregation units.

Moreover, compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, Indigenous offenders serve a higher proportion of their sentence behind bars before being granted parole, the press article stated.

Another key Canadian human rights actor, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, threw its full weight behind the federal ombudsperson’s highly critical findings. Marie-Claude Landry, the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, underlined the following in a press statement issued the same day:

“The Commission is deeply disturbed by the recent findings of the Office of the Correctional Investigator that the proportion of Indigenous people in federal prisons has now surpassed a staggering 30% of the total inmate population.”

“This is a national disgrace. We strongly agree with the Correctional Investigator that bold and urgent action is required to address this persistent and pressing human rights issue.”

The leading National Indigenous Organization for women, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was equally as scathing in its condemnation. In its own response NWAC President Lorraine Whitman commented:

“It is time that Canada recognizes the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in correctional systems. These findings are a symptom of historical and current systems of colonialism, racism and sexism against First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women.”

“All levels of government need to take real action now to reduce the number of incarcerated Indigenous peoples.”

The organization also threw a spotlight on both the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ 231 Calls for Justice from 2019 and the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action from 2015. Both reports demand transformative change within Canada’s criminal justice system. 

Whether the federal Canadian authorities will muster the political will to act on these recommendations remains to be seen. Even so, the Correctional Investigator’s findings underpin the absolute importance of the need to exercise independent oversight of the country’s closed institutions, more so in the absence of an OPCAT-based National Preventive Mechanism. It can only be hoped that the federal prison estate can be pulled back from its current disastrous Indigenization trajectory.


Read the Correctional Investigator’s statement in English and French.

Learn more about Dr. Zinger’s views in support of the OPCAT.

See the statement of the Canadian Human Rights Commission in English and French.

Read the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s press release.

Explore the joint 2019 report of the Office of the Canadian Investigator and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Aging and Dying in Prison.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, Oversight bodies, Prisons, Women prisoners

Places of Deprivation of Liberty and Gender – New Publication

The newly published title Places of Deprivation of Liberty and Gender will undoubtedly be of significant interest to human rights actors focusing on the situation of women in Canada’s different closed institutions. Authored by Omar Phoenix Khan and jointly published by the DCAF Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance, OSCE-ODIHR and UN Women on 18 December 2019, the publication arrives as one of the latest installments in the so-called Gender and Security Toolkit.

This highly welcome resource is featured among a series of Tools and Policy Briefs issued by the said international organizations on a diversity of human rights topics, including policing and gender, justice and gender, and security sector governance, sector reform and gender.

Canadian human rights actors and detention monitors working on issues relating to the deprivation of liberty will unquestionably find the new tool both absorbing and useful. According to the introductory overview of the publication, the intended purpose of Places of Deprivation of Liberty and Gender is as follows:

“This Tool is designed to be used by all actors working in connection with people who have been deprived of their liberty. These include policy-makers, legislators, institutional managers, front-line staff, members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others.

The main focus of the Tool is related to deprivation of liberty within criminal justice facilities, although much of the content presented here may also be relevant to deprivation of liberty in other settings, such as administrative detention, military detention centres, immigration centres and refugee camps.”

As highlighted in its opening section, the publication sets out to achieve the following objectives:

  • It outlines why integrating a gender perspective is important in closed institutions;
  • It provides a vision of what such facilities would look like if they successfully integrated a gender perspective into their policies and practices;
  • Real-life examples are offered of specific steps that have been taken to integrate such a gender perspective into places of deprivation of liberty;
  • In this same connection, practical guidance is offered to different engaged actors, including policy-makers, operational staff and civil society representatives.

For this writer, chapter 4 titled ‘Guidance for advancing gender equality within places of deprivation of liberty’ is especially illuminating, as it is replete with everyday examples of good gender-related detention practices, drawn from an array of national jurisdictions.

Moreover, the chapter’s focus on an issue close to the heart of the Canada OPCAT Project – independent oversight and monitoring – is especially welcome. In this same connection the report states:

“Organizations that provide independent scrutiny of conditions within places of deprivation of liberty and the treatment of people held therein are a vital cornerstone of any system hoping to ensure sustainable and equitable humane treatment of all such people.”

This undeniable reality is exceedingly well put by author Omar Phoenix Khan.

Solitary confinement
Cell Number 5 by Allissa Richardson (2011).

Other themes of distinct interest include the following: the need for internal oversight and data collection (as highlighted previously on this website); staff selection and ongoing training; infrastructure and accommodation; non-threatening intake and admission of detainees; transfers and searches; risk and needs assessment; healthcare; as well as visits and access to the wider community, among others.

The institutional self-assessment checklist included in chapter 5 of the tool offers an additionally practical benchmark for measuring success in integrating a gender perspective across these and others themes.  

All told, Places of Deprivation of Liberty and Gender very well complements various other useful resources currently available on gender in closed detention settings (for other materials please see under Other Resources) and consequently deserves a much closer look.


Explore Places of Deprivation of Liberty and Gender and the Gender and Security Toolkit.

Read Preventing and Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Places of Deprivation of Liberty.

See Guide to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of women prisoners: Implementation of the Bangkok Rules.

Posted by mp in Tools, Violence Against Women, Women prisoners

New Publication – Preventing and Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Places of Deprivation of Liberty

Fresh off their Warsaw printing presses OSCE-ODIHR has published yet another very welcome practical resource, this time on the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence in places of detention.

On 9 August 2019 the inter-governmental organization released the publication, Preventing and Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Places of Deprivation of Liberty: Standards, Approaches and Examples from the OSCE Region, which – at 170 pages or so in length – tackles this highly topical issue in considerable detail. More importantly, the publication is highly practical and usable too.

As one of the OSCE’s 57 participating States (although this fact is sometimes seemingly forgotten in Canada) the publication has direct relevance in the Canadian context.

The official OSCE-ODIHR description accompanying this new resource reads as follows:

The purpose of this publication is to improve the understanding of sexual and gender-based violence on the part of state actors and civil society, including an understanding of how such violence manifests in places of deprivation of liberty. It also identifies many of the factors that increase the vulnerability of persons deprived of their liberty and aims to contribute to the reduction and eventual elimination of sexual and gender-based violence in places of deprivation of liberty. The publication is primarily intended for policymakers, lawmakers and practitioners from criminal justice systems, including lawyers, prosecutors, judges and anyone else involved in arresting, investigating, interrogating or detaining suspects, those accused of a crime and prisoners or detainees.”

In this respect, the new publication complements very well a number of existing detention related guides currently available to detention monitors, human rights activists and criminal justice practitioners. The APT’s 2018 publication Towards the Effective Protection of LGBTI Persons Deprived of Liberty: A Monitoring Guide springs immediately to mind, which was also featured on this website.

OSCE-ODIHR’s brand-new contribution to the wider literature comprises some seven individual sections, as follows:

  • Introduction
  • Core concepts
  • Background: What do we know about sexual and gender-based violence in places of deprivation of liberty?
  • Risk and needs assessments
  • Reducing risk in specific situations
  • Other measures to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence
  • Conclusion

Three annexes complement the main body of text, highlighting key recommendations drawn from the publication as well as providing a very useful checklist for monitoring visits on sexual and gender-based violence in places of deprivation of liberty.

Solitary confinement
Solitary Confinement by garshna (2013).

The many specific country examples and ECtHR case-law excerpts also very much bring the document alive, adding colour to it and making it highly accessible to the reader. In short, the numerous country examples give the reader much to think about and draw on in their own national contexts.

The publication concludes as follows:

Sexual and gender-based violence in places of deprivation of liberty is preventable and should never be tolerated. This publication has sought to dig deep into this human rights violation and has demonstrated the need to raise awareness of its pervasiveness, enhance research and implement measures for its prevention

The recommendations in this publication serve as guidance for actions to be undertaken to step up OSCE participating States’ monitoring and reporting efforts in relation to SGBV. They should also help them to develop comprehensive methods for upholding human rights by creating appropriate safeguards.

This publication serves as a first step towards more detailed guidance and tools on the topic for practitioners, including both state authorities and non-governmental organizations. ODIHR will continue to raise awareness of this topic, in line with its mandate, and provide support to OSCE participating States willing to eradicate sexual and gender-based violence in places of deprivation of liberty.”

In a word, once again OSCE-ODIHR has made an invaluable contribution to the wider human rights literature on the topic of deprivation of liberty, providing a highly practical guide on what can be done on the ground to counter sexual and gender-based violence in detention.


Download Preventing and Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Places of Deprivation of Liberty: Standards, Approaches and Examples from the OSCE Region in English.

Explore the APT’s Towards the Effective Protection of LGBTI Persons Deprived of Liberty: A Monitoring Guide.

Read other detention related resources here.

Read an overview of two recent UN publications on women in detention, including in Canada.

Posted by mp in Places of detention, Publication, Torture prevention, Women prisoners

New Reports – Women Deprived of Liberty

“In the present report, the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice analyses the causes of deprivation of liberty of women from a gender perspective to provide an understanding of the ways in which women are uniquely and disproportionately affected by deprivation of liberty, owing to structural discrimination throughout their life cycle. While deprivation of women’s liberty manifests differently in different contexts, there are common underlying causes: the persistence of patriarchal systems which shape gender stereotypes and forms of discrimination that normalize them. The report contains recommendations to support States in developing and implementing comprehensive measures that are aimed at legal, institutional, social and cultural transformation.”

Women deprived of liberty – Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice (UN Doc. A/HRC/41/33, 15 May 2019).

This highly welcome recent UN report examines the various factors which result in women being deprived of their liberty, not least poverty and marginalization. In the Canadian context imprisonment for crimes related to poverty remains a clear factor for the incarceration of women.

Moreover, as argued in the report, poverty shapes not only the crimes of which women are accused, but also their interactions with the criminal justice system, which also have an effect on the likelihood of their incarceration and its length.  

As is also widely recognized, once convicted and incarcerated, women often have less access than men to rehabilitation and reintegration services, owing to a scarcity of gender-responsive custodial services designed for women inmates. This reality can lead to worse outcomes upon release, increasing the risk of recidivism and possibly leaving women in a cycle of incarceration.

The UN Working Group report identifies other key factors resulting in the deprivation of liberty of women globally, including discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes as well as women’s exposure to violence and conflict.

UN violence against women expert
Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women present his report at the 38th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. 20 June 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

For an international perspective specifically on women in detention in Canada the newly published report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women on her April 2018 mission to Canada also merits a closer read.

The report calls on Canada to implement a whole range of important measures in relation to the treatment and conditions of women in detention, including, notably, Indigenous women.

Significantly, the Special Rapporteur urges Canada to ratify the OPCAT as well as to fully implement the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the UN Bangkok Rules.

In her report the UN Special Rapporteur focuses on an array of other issues within her mandate, including domestic violence, sexual assault of women and girls, trafficking, online violence and harassment, forced sterilization, and women who encounter multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence, specifically Indigenous women and girls.

The reports of the UN Working Group and UN Special Rapporteur are available for download.


Read more about the activities of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.

Explore the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

Read more about Indigenous women in Canada’s prison system.

Read ‘The OPCAT – A Stuck Record?’ on Canada’s prolonged OPCAT ratification process.

Read the Canadian Correctional Investigator’s view on why Canada should ratify the OPCAT.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, OPCAT, UN Special Rapporteur, Women prisoners

New Publication – Implementation of the Bangkok Rules

Hot off the presses of the world-renowned international NGO, Penal Reform International, and its partner, Thailand Institute of Justice, comes another key resource aimed at supporting actors implement the UN Bangkok Rules.

This brand new practical resource, Guide to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of women prisoners: Implementation of the Bangkok Rules aptly complements PRI’s other publications which comprise its excellent UN Bangkok Rules Toolbox (as also highlighted in these pages under Other Resources). According to the authors of the new publication:

“Women and girls are a minority within prison systems, making up just 6.9 per of the global prison population. As a result, their specific needs and characteristics have tended to remain unacknowledged and unaddressed. Women continue to face particularly acute challenges and barriers in accessing programmes and services in prison, and there are often limited rehabilitation opportunities available to them.”

In the Canadian context, the Office of the Correctional Investigator has documented such challenges and barriers in its past Annual Reports. Similarly, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women echoed related concerns during its 2016 examination of Canada in Geneva, Switzerland.  

The authors have underpinned the utility of this guide on the implementation of the UN Bangkok Rules in the following terms:

“This new tool, developed in collaboration with the Thailand Institute of Justice, is designed for use by prison management, staff, policymakers and others involved in the criminal justice process, including legislators, judges and law enforcement officials. It aims to provide practical guidance on improving existing rehabilitation programmes and services and designing new ones, looking at different country contexts and taking into account location-specific challenges and opportunities.”

“This guide summarises the importance of good prisoner rehabilitation and social reintegration programmes and identifies the main barriers to successful rehabilitation, including the particular barriers faced by female prisoners and by specific groups of female prisoners such as girls, foreign nationals and women from ethnic minority groups. Identifying these barriers provides an insight into why additional efforts are needed to assist the rehabilitation of women offenders.”

Beyond the above users, Canadian detention monitors and human rights actors could equally employ this resource as a helpful reference point for gauging strong or weak domestic penal practice in the domain of the rehabilitation and social integration of women prisoners.

Similarly, in countries which have ratified the OPCAT (not to-date Canada), NPMs might also resort to the guide as a useful tool in assessing practice in this respect.

The thrust of this tool, found in part 2 titled Guidance, is especially relevant, comprising some four main sections, as follows:

  • Baseline for successful rehabilitation;
  • Education, vocational training and work;
  • Preparation for release and post-release support;
  • And rehabilitation programmes for specific groups.

As we human beings come in different shapes and sizes, the latter focus is sensitive to the needs of different types of prisoners. As such, this section centres on the rehabilitation needs of diverse groups including girls, pregnant women and women with children, foreign nationals, racial and ethnic minorities and Indigenous prisoners, prisoners with different mental and physical healthcare needs, LGBTI prisoners, as well as older prisoners.

barring freedom by meesh 2012

The publication concludes with a useful list of 10 key principles for gender-sensitive rehabilitation programmes, which in itself could act as a practical yardstick for Canadian detention monitors and penal reformers.

In a nutshell, the Guide to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of women prisoners: Implementation of the Bangkok Rules makes a valuable contribution to PRI’s myriad of other excellent resources on the subject as well as the wider implementation of the Bangkok Rules, which will be useful for human rights actors, penal reformers and detention monitors alike.  


Download the new publication, Guide to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of women prisoners: Implementation of the Bangkok Rules.

Read PRI/OSCE-ODIHR’s 2018 publication, Guidance Document on the Nelson Mandela Rules.

Learn more about how the incarceration of Indigenous Canada in PRI’s Global Prison Trends 2019.

Explore PRI’s other key resources, including on this website.

Learn more about the work of the Thailand Institute of Justice.

Posted by mp in Publication, Tools, Women prisoners