Authors: Mohammad Naciri and Jeremy Douglas*
Across Asia, places of detention have become a hotspot for outbreaks of COVID-19. Overcrowding – with some prisons in the region having occupancy levels above 500%[i]– poor infection control and a lack of access to services and information within prisons have created an environment in which the virus quickly takes hold.[ii]
To control the spread of COVID-19 and reduce prison populations, some countries in Asia have ordered theearly release of prisoners who are unlikely to pose harm to the general public and are nonviolent. This raises the question: if we can decrease incarceration rates in a crisis situation, why can’t we do it in ordinary times?
The effectiveness of incarceration to decrease crime rates and alternative sanctions to reduce the prison population has long been a source of debate, and the response to COVID-19 through early release has brought fresh attention to the issue.
Although women make up a minority of the global prison population at around 7%, their rate of imprisonment is increasing at a much higher rate than that of men.[iii]The number of women incarcerated worldwide has increased by 53%,compared to men at 20%,since 2000.[iv]Asia hasthe highest rates of women prisoners globally, with China Hong Kong and Macau SARs, Lao PDR, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore and Viet Nam recording that women constitute anywhere from 10% to 20% of prison populations.[v]
The vast majority of women also serve sentences for non-violent offences that are based on socioeconomic issues and gender-based discrimination. An increasing number of women in Asia are incarcerated for minor drug offences, which often involve personal use or low-level trafficking of drugs. In addition, women are targeted for “morality” offences, such as failing virginity tests, engaging in prostitution or undergoing an illegal abortion. A large number of women in prison have suffered from violence – as high as 75% of incarcerated women in some countries.[vi] Based on World Health Organization (WHO) reports, women admitted to prison also tend to have higher rates of mental health issues and substance abuse problems than their male counterparts, often as a result of previous violence and abuse.[vii]
Due to the larger numbers of male prisoners, especially in overcrowded prisons, the few prison rehabilitation programmes available are often not suited for women. When women are released from prison, they face distinct difficulties when trying to reintegrate into their communities.[viii] This in turn increases the risk of poverty and chances for recidivism, starting the cycle all over again.
With COVID-19 responses showing that imprisonment might not be the only approach, the time is right to move away from a reliance on punitive measures for low-level women offenders and for all prisoners, not just because of the crisis but in the long term. Gender-responsive prison rehabilitation projects and non-custodial measures are not only effective for women prisoners but also essential to reduce the number of incarcerated men.
Imprisonment for non-violent offences is costly for the State, detrimental to prisoners and their families, and likely will not prevent reoffending. In the case of drug use and possession, health-driven services and treatment can be an alternative to incarceration. And for those who must be imprisoned, gender-sensitive facilities, coupled with rehabilitation and reintegration strategies, can help address underlying socioeconomic causes for criminal behavior.
To decrease crime and protect the population, legislative reforms to eliminate discrimination and enhance social justice are needed. In addition, a shift to a more rehabilitation-focused criminal justice system and the introduction of more non-custodial measures has proven to reduce costs related to correctional services anddecrease recidivism significantly.[ix] Likewise, a reduction in prison populations can have a positive effect on those who remain incarcerated.
While COVID-19 has caused chaos, there are lessons we can take from the pandemic and reforms that can be considered. A good place to start is by addressing deficiencies in inequality and in criminal justice systems.
* Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific
[iii]World Prison Brief, World Female Imprisonment List 4th ed. (2017).https://www.prisonstudies.org/news/world-female-imprisonment-list-fourth-edition
[vii] World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, Health in Prisons (2007)
[ix]Edward J Latessa, Shelly J. Listwan, What Works (and Doesn’t) in Reducing Recidivism (2014)