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Risks Faced by Female Prisoners Amidst COVID-19: A Rising Crisis

Divya Mridhula

15th September 2020


Women and children are struggling with harsh conditions at a detention centre in Tripoli, Libya. (Source UN News)

Prison conditions globally at present are at an all-time low, with overcrowding, lack of management resources, unsanitary conditions that can risk lives, are some of the critical obstacles for assent with international standards.

The conditions have aggravated due to the coronavirus pandemic, notably for female detainees. In general, female inmates face dreadful conditions in many parts of the world. "Many women detainees face inhuman and degrading treatment during the arrest, interrogation, and in custody, including being stripped; invasive body searches; rape and threats of rape; so-called 'virginity testing'; and other acts, insults and humiliations of a sexual nature," informs Georgette Gagnon – head of field operations and technical cooperation at OHCHR to UN News.

According to the Human Rights Council, more than 700,000 women are in prison around the world, and that number is growing much faster than men.

A WHO study on “Imprisonment and women's health: concerns about gender sensitivity, human rights, and public health,” states that many prisoners come from marginalised subdivisions of the society and disadvantaged groups. Many of these convicts have unhealthy lifestyles and addictions such as alcoholism, smoking and drug use, which contribute to poor general health and put them at risk of disease, primarily during a pandemic as such. The study also points out that women in prisons generally have more physical and mental health needs than that of men. Due to inadequate education on health and hygiene, many detainees suffer from pre-existing sexually transmitted diseases, often worsened with their time at a prison. Not to forget the mental stresses and traumas many of these inmates carry from their history of abuse.

According to a report by The Wire, 103 persons – 77 prisoners and 26 prison staff – tested positive for coronavirus infection at Arthur Road central prison in Mumbai and one prisoner and one doctor – have been reported to be infected in Byculla Women's Prisons, in Mumbai. During March, Byculla prison had 352 inmates against its actual capacity of 200 inmates, translating to a 176% occupancy rate. The prison, despite being a female-only prison, often has male inmates convicted for petty crimes inside the premise. A member of the secretary of Mumbai district legal service authority (DLSA) Yatin Game confirmed to The Wire that after the Supreme Court's order to decongest prisons across the country, nearly 147 prisoners were released from Byculla prison.

DLSA member secretary Game informed The Wire that women in most cases are charged with the co-accused for aiding or helping their male counterparts in a crime. "These women are mostly dependent on the male members of the family who are already incarcerated in another prison. Also, most women in Mumbai's prison are from other districts or in some cases, even from other states. It is a practical problem right now," he added.

A WHO study on ‘Imprisonment and women's health: concerns about gender sensitivity, human rights and public health’ suggested that review and development in policies on prison conditions need to be looked upon by governments globally, notably for its female inmates during the COVID crisis. Immediate steps to shield the situation from deteriorating need to be pushed forward.

(Sources: UN News, The Wire, WHO)

Edited by Pratheek S

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