Security is not Safety: Gendered Harms in Women’s Prisons

Barbara Owen 25th May 2017 Article originally published here
Photo: Women’s prison in Karaganda region, Kazakhstan – Karla Nur, 2014
Photo: Women’s prison in Karaganda region, Kazakhstan – Karla Nur, 2014

Prisons – by definition – are secure institutions. Shifting philosophies of punishment underpin approaches to security and safety. The mobility, behaviour and activities of those imprisoned are controlled by carceral architecture and structured schedules with policy, practice and personnel reinforcing the custodial demands of imprisonment. Such procedures are designed to prevent escapes and maintain ‘control’ and ‘order’ through security and discipline. My experience in women’s prisons has led me to question this dynamic for imprisoned women: does security create safety? Are women safe while imprisoned? Does security itself create gendered harms of imprisonment?

In the last decade, my work has focused on these questions through two long-term projects. First, I was more than fortunate to be invited to work with the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ), a partner of PRI, in addressing the global issues of women in prison. Thailand, through the support of Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha, has led this charge by supporting the development of and implementing the Bangkok Rules, soft laws that offer guidance on human rights protections for women in prison (see PRI’s extensive resources on the Bangkok Rules). Second, I have explored the dimensions of gendered safety in American women’s prisons and jails with James Wells and Joycelyn Pollock through extensive interview, focus group and survey research. These experiences have steered me to question the wide gulf between security and safety – particularly as experienced by women prisoners.

Gendered Harms

As Dana Britton argues, prisons are deeply gendered organisations. In our book, In Search of Safety: Confronting inequality in women’s imprisonment, we build on this insight to examine the harms embedded in the contemporary prison and how these harms impact women differently than men. In documenting women’s experience with imprisonment, we frame these threats to women’s safety as ‘gendered harm’ in two ways. First, and most common, is the idea that harm is damage or injury to a person through overt actions or practice. Clearly, forms of physical and sexual violence against women in custody fit this view. Operational practice grounded in the need for physical security has also been shown to harm imprisoned women. The daily round in prison is often detrimental to women’s well-being, particularly for women with trauma symptoms or other mental health conditions.

Second, we also see gendered harm in terms of the inability or unwillingness to meet women’s pathway needs. Such needs are often unmet inside prison, when they fail to acknowledge the gender-based realities that shape women’s pathways to prison. Such neglect is common in women’s prisons throughout the world. There are overlapping themes relevant to women offenders: providing for their safety, rehabilitation and social reintegration while in custody, requiring that programmes and services address their gender-based needs in terms of health care (including pregnancy), mental health and other therapeutic needs; and recognising their histories as survivors of interpersonal violence, and their caring responsibilities for children. Women’s prisons may be secure but, we ask, are they safe?

We claim these harms are unnecessary and constitute gendered human rights violations. The challenges to safety and well-being of women prisoners are not only problems in America’s prisons. Globally, women in prison face many forms of discrimination and other consequences of gender inequality, reproducing the harms identical to those we find in U.S. prisons.

There are two practical solutions to this unnecessary suffering: expanding the concept of security to include multiple forms of gendered safety, and implementing the human rights protections outlined in the Bangkok Rules.

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