Vance Center Presents at Human Rights Bodies on Women in Prison

April 2021

The Human Rights and Access to Justice Program made two key presentations to international human rights bodies related to the Women in Prison initiative, which the program has pursued for three years[i].

Presentation to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

The Vance Center, on behalf of its Women in Prison Network, presented at a public hearing of the Court on the issue of “Differentiated Approaches to Persons Deprived of Liberty”. The presentation emphasized: 1) the importance of centering the experiences of formerly incarcerated women in the discussion; 2) the necessity of States recognizing and responding to social factors, particularly those linked to discrimination and inequality that lead to incarcerating women; and 3) the urgent need for a less punitive criminal policy and gender-focused public policies, as well as alternatives to incarceration, to avoid the harmful consequences of detention for women, their families, and communities.

The Court invited the Vance Center to make this presentation following its Written Opinion to the Court in December 2020, addressing the request from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for an Advisory Opinion related to “Differentiated Approaches to Persons Deprived of Liberty”.

In the Written Opinion, the Vance Center and members of its Women in Prison Network discussed the obligations of States to respect and guarantee the rights of all persons and analyzed best practices of some States concerning women in prison who are pregnant, postpartum, or lactating, as well as girls and boys who live with their mothers in detention. The analysis also considered how such States have interpreted the rights to equality and freedom from all forms of discrimination within the prison context.

The Written Opinion presented the experiences of various member organizations of the Network and made recommendations on State’s obligations on these issues. The following members of the Women in Prison Network contributed to the Written Opinion: A Little Piece of Light (United States), AdvocAid (Sierra Leone), Associação Elas Existem – Mulheres Encarceradas (Brazil), Clean Start (Kenya), Corporación Humanas (Colombia), Faraja Foundation (Kenya), Karen Yololtzy Leyva Martínez (Mexico), Rosa Julia Leyva Martínez (Mexico), Mattos Filho, Veiga Filho, Marrey Jr. e Quiroga Advogados (Brazil), Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones (Venezuela), Penal Reform International, Prawa (Nigeria), and Silvia Martínez (Argentina).

On the same day as the presentation to the Court, Network member Advocaid (Sierra Leone) spoke on a panel at the 68th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s rights about the findings of the Sierra Leone research study and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on conditions for women in prison.The invitation to participate in the event followed the participation of the African Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions of Detention at a workshop organized by the Vance Center to discuss the implications of the Sierra Leone study for other countries in Africa.

Submission to the UN Independent Expert on the Enjoyment of Human Rights by Older Persons

The Vance Center and four members of the Women in Prison Network presented a written submission to the Independent Expert on the human rights of older women, including: 1) a general overview of the experiences of older women in prison; 2) information on the growing numbers of older women in prison and the lack of adequate and suitable prison facilities and services to meet the specific needs of older women, including specific healthcare services; and 3) analysis of the societal discrimination leading older women to come into conflict with the law, and the exacerbating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on these issues. The Vance Center sought to encourage the Independent Expert to include the information, analysis, and specific recommendations for addressing the needs of this often-forgotten population in her upcoming report to the UN General Assembly.

[i] The Women in Prison Project, launched in 2017 by the Vance Center’s Human Rights and Access to Justice Program, seeks  to promote global collaboration on improving conditions of women’s imprisonment. Examples of initiatives under the Project include:

  • Convening in Bogota, Colombia, the first international conference of women prisoners’ rights advocates. The Vance Center, in partnership with Penal Reform International, brought together 49 advocates from 23 countries, including nine formerly incarcerated women. Out of this conference was created the first-ever global network of advocates for women prisoners: the Women in Prison Network.
  • Conducting a year-long studyin partnership with NGO AdvocAid on the causes and consequences of women’s imprisonment in Sierra Leone and holding workshops with Network advocates to discuss the findings. Following the study, the Vance Center and AdvocAid facilitated a series of training workshops for police officers in Sierra Leone and jointly submitted a contribution to Sierra Leone’s May 2021 Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The submission focused on human rights concerns with regards to women in prison in Sierra Leone, with a focus on issues such as prison conditions, unfair police practices, arbitrary arrests, petty offences, violence against women, and the death penalty.
  •    The report “Women in Prison: Africa Regional Initiative”, developed in collaboration with NGOs and law firms in Nigeria, The Gambia, Malawi, Kenya, and Tanzania and launched at a panel discussion at the Africa NGO Forum preceding the African Commission’s ordinary session in Banjul, The Gambia in the Fall of 2019. The report surveys what is currently known about women’s incarceration in these five African countries, both in law and practice. It provides a detailed analysis of these countries’ compliance with domestic, regional, and international standards on women’s incarceration.
  • Mobilizing the Women in Prison Network and conducting researchon government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in detention centers for women in the Global South. The research focused on six key areas: healthcare, prison protocols and rules, children in prison with their mothers, rehabilitation and release, the criminal justice system, and prison staff and covered 17 Global South countries. Based on the assessment, the Network submitted open letters to the African Commission on Human and People´s Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urging states to ensure that COVID-19 responses consider the unique needs of women in prison.
  • A campaign to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (The Bangkok Rules). The social media campaign raised awareness of the Bangkok Rules while showcasing the work of members of the Women in Prison Network. These advocates, often formerly incarcerated women themselves, have devoted their lives to improving conditions for women in prison all over the world.