Force-fed and beaten – life for women in jail

New UN guidelines are being flouted worldwide, Independent on Sunday research shows

Female prisoners around the world are being subjected to body cavity searches, beatings and force-feeding, are held in padded cells, shackled during childbirth, and made to work in chain gangs. Some of the worst conditions are in developing countries, but there are also serious abuses and overcrowding in Europe and North America. These are the major findings of a survey by The Independent on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of United Nations rules governing the treatment of women in prison.

The "Bangkok Rules" make stipulations about contact with families, gender-specific healthcare, psychological treatment and hygiene, and they forbid strip searches in most circumstances. The guidelines were adopted on 21 December 2010, but reports from around the world show they are being widely flouted.

In Greece, for example, prisoners have been offered a choice between a vaginal search and solitary confinement on a course of laxatives. Chinese prison officers encouraged inmates to tie each other up and fight. In Turkmenistan, prisoners are shackled to their beds as they give birth - a practice that is also legal in most of the United States. South African prisoners complain that they run out of water on an almost monthly basis. A Russian male deputy prison governor was jailed for beating female inmates with his fists and boots. Rape victims have been jailed in Afghanistan for having extramarital sex. And women's prisons from Russia to Canada, France to Australia have been condemned for their appalling living conditions and inadequate mental and physical healthcare.

Just as alarming is the steep rise in the number of women being jailed. More than 500,000 are in prison around the world. In the US alone, there are now eight times more women in prison than 30 years ago. Fiona Cannon, who chairs the Prison Reform Trust's Women's Justice Taskforce, said women's prisons are now seen as "stop-gap providers of drug detox, social care, mental health assessment and treatment, and temporary housing". Self-harm and suicide are far more common among female prisoners than male, relatively few women are in jail for violent crimes, a majority have children, and many are drug addicts or victims of sexual abuse.

At Johannesburg Women's Prison, cells typically contain one toilet, one sink, one shower and as many as 40 people. Prisoners are locked in from 2pm to 8am. "People can kill each other before they unlock the cells," Duduzile Matlhabadile, a former prisoner, told The IoS. "You don't know what's going to happen. It's not safe in there." Ms Matlhabadile, who served 12 years for armed robbery and homicide, recalled an incident in which a woman threw boiling water over a fellow prisoner; it took two hours for the guards to come and open the doors. She said her cell would often be without water for two days at a time.

A former judge inspector of prisons in South Africa, Deon van Zyl, last year called the country's prison conditions "shockingly inhumane". Campaigners at the Wits Justice Project, which investigates problems in South Afica's justice system, say the Department of Correctional Services has ignored their requests to gain access to prisons since February, adding that anecdotal evidence indicates conditions have not improved.

In northern Turkmenistan, inmates at the Dashoguz Women's Prison colony are reportedly handcuffed to the bed from both sides while giving birth. The baby is given away and the woman returns to forced labour a day or two later. More than 2,000 women are housed in a colony built for 1,000. Fights break out when food is handed out: black bread, porridge and a thin soup made of bones, cotton oil and pumpkin make up the daily diet.

The EU has its share of horrors, too. Greece's Thiva Women's Prison is an hour north of Athens. A former detoxification centre, it has the bleak atmosphere of a converted warehouse. Its dormitories each hold six bunk beds and a couple of single beds. A communal area features a concrete floor, dark green walls and little else; the exercise yard contains no equipment or shelter. Messages are conveyed to inmates via a loudspeaker. Vaginal searches are conducted there, as in other women's prisons in Greece. Until earlier this year, prisoners who refused a vaginal examination on arrival were placed in a segregation unit for several days and made to take laxatives. Authorities say vaginal searches are now undertaken only in exceptional circumstances and are now done by trained doctors, rather than by nursing assistants. They say laxatives are no longer administered, but monitors from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture confirmed that the practice was still going on when they visited in January.

In France, strip searches are more or less routine, and inmates' letters seen by The IoS complain about being made to adopt degrading positions. One pregnant woman was told to lift up her breasts while being searched before being permitted to see her family in the visiting room. But the real problem in France's prisons is healthcare. In the mixed-sex Nîmes Prison in southern France, for example, there is no facility for gynaecological examinations, which means that no preventative consultations are done.

In England and Wales, conditions are far more benign, but the number of women in jail has increased from 1,800 in 1996 to 4,100 now. More than half of female prisoners say that they have suffered domestic violence, 37 per cent have previously attempted suicide, nearly 40 per cent left school before 16, and one in three have experienced sexual abuse. More than two-thirds of female prisoners have children, which means, according to Home Office research in 2003, that prison deprives nearly 20,000 children of their mothers each year. And judges do not take into account whether a defendant is a primary carer. "It's deeply ingrained in judges that a child must not be an excuse to avoid imprisonment," said Rona Epstein, who has studied 47 cases in England and Wales where judges have ignored the rights of the child.

The situation in North America is worse. The California state prison healthcare system has been in federal receivership since 2006. To get healthcare and living conditions to a constitutional minimum, the state has been ordered to reduce its prison population by 33,000 over the next two years. In the meantime, supplies of medicines and sanitary products are limited, and understaffing means prisons are in lock-down mode. Two-thirds of education staff have been laid off in the past two years, and all the while the prison population continues to rise.

The state's two biggest female prisons are both in the desert town of Chowchilla. Valley State Prison is designed to hold 2,024 people and is currently housing 3,810. Central California Women's Facility is holding 3,918, far more than its 2,004 capacity. Cells originally built for four people are holding 10. "We've never, ever had the reports of violence among peers that we're seeing now," said Cynthia Chandler, the director of the women's campaign group Justice Now. "People are dirty, their cells are dirty, they're bleeding on themselves, they're emotional and in a state of despair. It's creating conditions inside a pressure cooker." And, across the border in Arizona, female chain gangs are made to bury the dead and clear wasteland in the desert heat, in a scheme introduced by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in June.

Andrew Coyle, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at London University, said: "Scandinavian practice in general terms is better than in many other countries. That's because they put fewer people in prison, and the consequence is they can run them more decently and humanely. The criminal justice system is kept for those who need to be locked up for the sake of society.

"Reducing reoffending is a false target. It's based on the premise that sending someone to prison makes them less likely to commit crime. In fact, one of the strongest predictors of future offending is being sent to prison. We know the solutions: more community-based facilities and putting women in small units close to home. The answers are there. They're just not being implemented."

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