The Bangkok Rules

Officially, the ‘Bangkok Rules’ is the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, and the UN General Assembly adopted the rules in December 2010. They are relevant in transcending international issues relating to prison and incarceration communities that do not cater to women. The Bangkok Rules should always be read in conjunction with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (STMRTP). The Bangkok rules merely supplements them by providing foundational rules that facilitate to female prisoners to avoid bureaucratic discrimination.

According to the book “Using Participatory Action Research to put the Bangkok Rule into Practice, The Thai Prison Case Study”:

  • Culturally women are abused both within the social world and within incarceration. Therefore, there treatment of women should be specialised.
  • The Bangkok Rules are not linked to discrimination, but rather acknowledge particular needs that are linked to female gender physically, socially and culturally.


Consideration is given to issues such as:

  • violence
  • victimisation
  • powerlessness to bargain or plea
  • separation from children
  • care for elderly family (parents) outside of prison
  • health problems (reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases)
  • the problem of pregnant women and giving birth in prison
  • psychological conditions of prison which enforce stress, pressure, self-harm and suicide.

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Women in Prison Forum

Education and Training

Given that the development of personal skills and knowledge is crucial to the rehabilitation of women prisoners, problems surrounding education and training in women’s prisons must also be examined.

Education and Employment
Women are less likely than men to have access to education, rehabilitation and employment training programs while imprisoned. As unemployment has been found to be a strong predictor of recidivism, this inaccessibility can have negative implications for women post-release.1 In addition, prior to incarceration, women are less likely than men to be employed with unemployment rates of 69% compared with 46%.2 Women are also less likely to have employment organised prior to their release than men (10% and 31% respectively).3

Corrective Service departments throughout Australia have introduced education and training programs in their prisons, and use course completions and reduced recidivism as measures of success.4 Importantly, programs that reduce recidivism rates, such as in-prison study and workplace integrated learning, provide the greatest return to the community in terms of reducing the costs of imprisonment as well as other policing and legal costs. Education and training in prison imparts specific and generic life skills; while workplace integrated learning recognises the importance of and promotes the social aspects of successful reintegration. As such, computers are an important tool to target recidivism through education and self-improvement. Computer literacy is an increasingly vital requirement for everyday life; it significantly affects education, vocational training and career prospects.

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Historical Context of Women’s Imprisonment

Female convicts from Ireland and England in the 18th and 19th Centuries who were sent to Australia had to work in a ‘Female Factory’ either making ropes, flax or wool. Others were sent to the home of settlers to serve as domestic. Some also had the opportunity to work as nurses or record-keepers under the Governor Phillip’s system of labour.

After colonization, the first prison for women opened in 1909 in Long Bay (NSW), nowadays known as the State Reformatory for Women.

In 1969, another training and detention centre was opened in Silverwater (Sydney) and accommodated female prisoners who had previously been in goal in the Long Bay Institution.

Women imprisonment rates in Australia have been steadily increasing, in both the rate at which they are imprisoned (almost four times than twenty years ago) and their percentage of the prison population. There are more women in remand than men although it remains difficult to compare statistic of the time in custody as women have shorter but more frequent periods of imprisonment.

Women tend to be involved in crime typically regarded as less serious, such as shoplifting, fraud and drug-related crimes. Nevertheless, increases in the proportion of incarcerated women might be partially explained by the changes in type of crimes women are committing. Indeed, between 1999 and 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics overview of national trends observed an increase of women committing robbery, theft, assault and homicide. The most serious offence with the highest proportion of offenders for women in Australia in this period was possession/use of illicit drugs, followed by acts intended to cause injury. For men, it was the opposite.


Aftercare: Transition from Prison to Liberty

Being deprived of one's liberty is a severe form of punishment. It has long been recognised that, aside from community safety or punishment, one of the major roles of prisons is to provide prisoners with opportunities for rehabilitation. The concept of rehabilitation is that the time spent in prison is an opportunity to provide prisoners with programs and activities to develop skills and resources that will assist them to live in society successfully upon release, without committing further breaches of the criminal law. However, successful rehabilitation also requires post-release support which women prisoners largely do not have access to upon their release.

Making Rehabilitation of Women Prisoners Effective

Genuine rehabilitation simply cannot be undertaken solely within the prison environment and must be undertaken at the post-release phase. Factors such as employment, accommodation, drug abuse, mental health, sexual assualt and trauma are deeply implicated in offending for women, and need to be addressed in rehabilitation programs. Currently in Australia, the extent to which these factors can be meaningfully addressed prior to release continue to be very limited and ineffective. The reduced availability of in-custody rehabilitation programs compared with men is discriminatory and has a negative effect on women’s rehabilitative prospects. Case management and programs must become available to women at the time of their incarceration, not just after their sentence. Almost 30% of women in custody throughout Australia are on remand with no access to the rehabilitative programs that could improve their prospects for reintegration on release. Clients of the organisation WIPAN and also other post-release services for women prisoners have been made aware of women in prison who have had no opportunity to participate in programs from the date of receiving their sentence to their earliest date of release. A woman’s sentence includes the time spent on remand and consequently they can leave prison with no further custodial time to serve or for a short time after sentencing, making her ineligible for in-custody rehabilitation programs at all. This does nothing to assist women prisoners with the process of rehabilitating, one of the stated aims of all corrective services. The whole of the custodial period is a time that should be used by Corrective Services to increase the likelihood and ability for women prisoners upon release to successfully reintegrate.

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Mental Health and Cognitive Disability

Many women prisoners have experienced life difficulties that impact on their health and wellbeing prior to entering prison, including episodes of sexual, physical and/or psychological abuse.1 This is said to contribute to women prisoners having higher rates of mental health issues compared with women in the community. Eighty-four percent (84.5%) of women in prison had a mental disorder compared with 19.1% of women in the community.2 Women prisoners have been found to be 1.7 times more likely to have a mental illness than male prisoners, and non-Aboriginal women are significantly more likely than non-Aboriginal men to have attempted suicide.3 One Victorian study found that 84% of women prisoners interviewed met the criteria for having a mental health problem.4 Forty-four percent (44%) of these women had major depression and 36% had post-traumatic stress disorder. Higher than both these groups was the percentage of women who had a drug-related mental health disorder. This was 57%.5 The study states that this range of mental health problems is similar to those found in literature on the impact of childhood abuse including the subsequent development of mental health issues into adulthood.6 

As such, women are more likely than male prisoners to suffer from psychiatric disorders.This leads to cyclical ‘serial instituionalisation’ where a high proportion of women prisoners have dual and multiple diagnoses and are more likely to serve multiple sentences throughout life.

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Tracy Brannigan Avoidable death in custody

Tracy Brannigan’s avoidable death in custody marks the loss of a loved one and must force change in the prison system. She was owed a duty of care but rather than accepting responsibility, they isolated her in a cell away from her family and support. Their callous indifference caused her death. Download Report and Action Plan

Update: Media Release Friday 3rd May 2013, Justice Action calls for a public inquiry into avoidable deaths in custody, and launches the Tracy Brannigan Action Plan.

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iExpress: Now launching prisoners & mental health patients online!

Justice Action is proud to introduce iExpress, the world’s first prisoner webpage and interactive email system aimed at empowering people in prisons and forensic hospitals and bringing them into the digitial world, reducing the divide and social exclusion that currently exists. They will now have the opportunity to access an exciting, new channel of self-expression and communication, free of charge. Launch video here.

We are bringing them out of the cells and onto the net! iExpress website

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