Empowering Women Prisoners in China

Organised by the Australian Human Rights Commission, we presented an array of issues surrounding women in prisons to the Ministry of Justice China (MOJC) and proposed changes. Eight top officials from the Ministry listened to our concerns about the rapidly expanding prison rate and our proposals about computers in cells and access to responsive health and social services, as women prisoners are the fastest growing prison demographic in Australia.

moj pictureAbove: Justice Action presenting to the Ministry of Justice China


On March 26th 2014, Justice Action (JA) and the Women in Prison Advocacy Network presented, on behalf of Australian prisoners, to the Ministry of Justice, People’s Republic of China delegation. We raised the alarming issue of women imprisonment and ways to empower prisoners to assist resettlement. The China-Australia Human Rights Technical Cooperation Program aims to build commitment with the People’s Public of China government to apply human rights principles and practices for human rights reform. This one week program focused on women in prisons.

JA strongly advocated that the voices of people held in prisons should be heard and their independence supported. We suggest that a similar organisation to JA should be supported in China to assist with the protection, health and freedom of rights for women Prisoners in China. We provided four identified areas of concern, which are listed below:  

1. Women are the fastest growing prison demographic in Australia, especially indigenous females.

We noted that over a 15-year period, the number of female prisoners has significantly increased at approximately 4 times the rate of males. Furthermore, indigenous women are seriously over represented within the prison system, resulting in 33.2% of the total prison population; effectively tripling over a 15-year period. An increased level of female incarceration rates poses significant threats to the social, cultural and economic well being of families and children of these women. Statistical evidence indicates 72% of female prisoners have children, out of which 62% are the sole caregiver. This gives rise to intergenerational imprisonment, highlighted with indigenous children, comprising 50% of juvenile justice detainees.

2. The provision of computers within cells

We proposed that giving prisoners access to computers whilst in prison provides them the ability to effectively educate, train and empower themselves. Computers are a tool to target recidivism through education and online counselling. With the majority of prisoners spending up to 18 hours in cells, it is an efficient way to use their time productively, developing independently and safely. Access to a computer and the Internet through safe servers provides online education, employment, improved access to legal resources and communication with family, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Research suggests that online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is essentially more effective then traditional face-to-face therapy. Enabling access to online counselling services will act as a source of empowerment, potentially improving the mental health of prisoners.

3. Responsive Health Care Services and Social Support

We commented that access to both Health Care Services and social support plays a pivotal role in ones health and well-being. The problem in Australia is that health services are not working in a responsive matter, creating passivity, often including medication use. Social support is very important to those in prison, especially for mothers who have left commitments behind. Sixty two percent of women in prison are the sole carer of a child. Most often, women feel like they have a ‘hopeless life’, resulting in the creation of destructive pathways through the abuse of drugs, both illegal and prescribed. Ideally, prisons need collaborative programs that seek social support, family access and encouragement.

4. The process of Strip-searching

Finally, we stressed that strip-searching is a form of State-sanctioned violence that is similar to sexual assault and one that negatively impacts women’s psychological well-being. We proposed introducing security scanners as an alternative to strip-searching, which maintains a prisoner’s dignity in accordance with Bangkok Rule 20.


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