Home » Side event: Women, drug policy and incarceration in Southeast Asia

Side event: Women, drug policy and incarceration in Southeast Asia

Jane Holloway, Thailand Institute of Justice. The purpose of the event is to share research and findings on women incarcerated in Asia. We also explore promising reforms on gender policy, guided by research and UN international standards.

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC representative in the Asia Pacific. We are rolling out the Bangkok Rules through our regional office. My PPT is very brief but it sets the stage for the discussion. Women in prison is a drug policy issue. The region of South East Asia has a unique drug market. We’ve seen in the past decade a significant growth in synthetic drugs and has taken other regions of the world, with meth use and supply, as well as crystal meth. Several countries report continuous use of crystal meth. This matters for the Bangkok Rules because of the issue of criminality of use. We also see vary large proportion of the Asian meth being seized in the Mekong. If you put the capacity of the region into context, this is similar to Latin America – capacity is low in the region to address this issue. The use in the region is criminalised in many jurisdictions, but we also have supply side activities. We also see a huge surge in arrests made in the region in the past decade. Within countries, there is also a large amount of people held in pre-trial detention. There is massive overcrowding in many countries of the region, with over 50% of prisons over capacity. This is also the case for Asian prisons.

We see a roll out of the Bangkok Rules in the region. The Thai Princess has worked as a good will ambassador to promote the Bangkok Rules. We have worked with TIJ and Kamlangjai project. We have put in place the elements necessary to implement the Bangkok Rules. We also see opportunities of how we can do better. We are soon taking the Princess to Indonesia in a women prison to continue giving visibility on this issue. We also held a high level conference on the SDGs in March in South East Asia to give a political push to the rights of women prisoners. The situation we see in relation to women in prison here is very much connected to drug policy. The criminal justice response to drugs is a challenge for us as it is causing overcrowding. But we see implementation regionally of the Bangkok Rules and see potential in a few countries, in particular Indonesia where we have access to the system and where we can offer advice. We are also looking at ASEAN to discuss on how to move forward the justice agenda and the Bangkok Rules. This is a challenging landscape but also opportunities.

Chontit Chuenurah, Thailand Institute of Justice. My presentation will focus on the treatment of women in prisons. I am not a drug expert. I will focus on the Thai situation. To put it in a global perspective. Thailand ranks fifth in the list of countries worldwide on the highest female prison population, ahead of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar. 13% of the prison population in Thailand are women. In the Asia region, we are number 1. As of now, Thailand has over 330,000 prisoners, of which 45,000 are female. There has been a surge of 8% between 2007-2017.

One part of the Bangkok Rules states that governments should understand who are these women incarcerated. We found that 78% were first-time offenders, 80% for drug offences, 78% were mothers, 50% said they had not enough income before imprisonment, a third were serving 1-5 years in prison. We then tried to understand why women committed crimes. Most are incarcerated for domestic drug offences, process and distribution of drugs. Women in this pathway had adverse childhood experience (abuse, domestic violence, drug use history in the family), push factors to engage in criminal activity via a deviant peer group. A deviant peer group is a pull factor leading women to try drugs to try new things, and then they become addicted. Some women come from loving families who are lenient which leads to drug use. On the third pathway, women who committed drug offences tried to support their family, they live in poverty and work to provide for their family. This perpetuates cycles of poverty. The fourth group come from good families but are naive and deceived. Their lives are stable until the point where they grow up and default into the drug trade because of their naivety. For example, they use meth to lose weight or for sexual stimulation and they become addicted.

We did a study with 10 Thai women in several countries. All women are at the lowest level in organised crime, they are carrying drugs for somebody else, and engaged through a male romantic partner. This is a similar trend for all these women, it’s a pattern that repeats itself: romance and emotional bond, feeling of loneliness and lack of self esteem, they are tricked to engaging. Another trend is domestic violence and threats. One woman was a university student, identifies herself as a bit fat and so went on online dating and was coerced into the trade. Another woman was in love with a foreign man who paid for her expenses, and engaged out of love. One woman expressed her choice to engage for money or to travel, she was not tricked – but she was the only one. However, although many women don’t state it clearly, they are in bad situations of domestic violence and look for a way to run away.

We need more prevention, education and treatment in prison. Women need more education on the legal punishment for drug trafficking. Women have a low self esteem, some have low life skills and don’t know how to say no. They need life skills. Criminal justice policies need a gender perspective, and imprisonment should be used as a last resort.

Cathy Alvarez, Project coordinator on women and incarceration at IDPC. We have a very high rate of overcrowding in the Philippines. We had 600% prison overcrowding. 8% of people in prison are women. They are 21,000 women in prison, including those in pre-trial detention. Most women deprived of liberty are in overcrowded prisons which lack capacity. Many are detained for drug offences. In the Philippines it’s about 60%. Many are vulnerable to many forms of abuse and don’t have access to care and reproductive health. Sometimes their families are unable or refuse to visit them because of stigma. Many don’t have access to legal aid.

It’s important to look at these women as being capable of legal thought. In my city alone, there are only a few public defenders handling 12,000 cases. It’s almost impossible to receive legal aid. Many women I spoke to has been in jail for 12 years waiting for her case to be resolved. In that jail, there is space for 40 people but there are 100 of them. So in 2015 we started providing paralegal training to these women. We asked the prison wards to identify women so that they can be trained in paralegal support. From 2015-2017 I provided paralegal training to these women. Many of these women are even better than legal students! That’s their lives so they know what is going on. Many women don’t even know they can post bail. One time, right after the training a woman just posted bail. The public attorney said that it would be easier if these women could narrate their stories. We reached them to do this and tell their stories. Sometimes there is a demand for different laws, but the dangerous drugs law is the most important. Others include family law, children’s laws’ etc. We help them understand the procedure so that they know what is going on in court and with their cases.

Last year, women were featured in an article. They are called the ‘lipstick brigade’ to provide emergency legal assistance to their fellow inmates. They also call the attention of prison officials if some women’s cases have not been moved for a long time. They are very proud of their interventions, but very often because of their crime they stay in prison for a very long time. The students of the paralegal aid training have a uniform and are recognised by the jail staff. Pens are not allowed in the jail so we give it to them during the training and then we get those back. We also try to remove stigma against women who are there for drug offences. The law students help the legal aid people. One time, a woman had been in pre-trial detention for a long time and nobody knew why. There was an earthquake and her case was lost in the old building affected by the earthquake. The law student in the prison informed the legal experts of this and the case could move forward. The objective here is that paralegal aids also gain confidence and can continue to help others after they’re released, they can even become lawyers.

We gather women and let the paralegal workers collect information about their stories. They have drama, dance, sing, and after the presentation they inform the judges about the issues related to access to justice. They pass their excitement through these shows before court and then can go to court and share their story with the judge.

This programme is also about giving women their dignity back, and help others being there for you. There are many testimonies of women who went through the paralegal programme. It gives many women a second chance, even those incarcerated for life. We started with 12 women in one of the women, and now we only have 6 because the others were released. This does not make a huge difference in numbers, but in terms of value for life, there is some measure of success.

I had to leave this job and on my last visit their organised a programme for me to thank me. I am very proud of all that they have accomplished and I hope this can of activity is possible to empower women. It was ok for me to go because I know they now have the tools to be paralegals and I hope this can be replicated in as many places as possible.

Ernesto Cortes, ACEID. I will explain what happened in Costa Rica in the past 5 years focusing on women. Costa Rica is a very small country, we have less than 5 million people, but we have one of the highest prison rate in the whole of Latin America, especially for drug offences. This is old data because it is hard to get information for drug offences. This country was identified as a key country for the CEDD project on research on incarceration for drug offences. In 2014, there is a difference in age between men and female prisoners. Women’s age is 40-44 years old. Most are mothers, they have at least 2-3 kids. They are incarcerated for selling small amounts of cannabis/crack or for smuggling drugs in prison. About 60% of women re incarcerated for drug offences, while it’s 20% for men. The percentage has changed over the years, but it is the biggest problem for women incarcerated.

This has led the public defence to reform the law in 2013, it is the law 9161, we call the reform 77bis, which introduced a new article, 77bis, in which women arrested for introducing drugs in prison saw their prison sentences to 3-8 years, and allowed for alternatives to incarceration. This also created criteria to apply for a reduction of sentence. There are four criteria: extreme poverty, vulnerability, children as charge, elderly. Once the reform passed, the percentage of overcrowding in women prisons disappeared, it is now -6%. This is the only women prison population. Men prisons are all overcrowded. When the reform passed, 120 women got out of jail.

Other reforms were passed, including electronic mechanisms for judicial supervision, the erasing of criminal records after incarceration to make sure women could find a job and re-enter society. Before, the record was for 10 years. Now the criminal record is reduced or eliminated depending on the length of the prison sentence. We also have a restorative justice programme which has a drug court programme that allows treatment under supervision. It is not the judge that makes decisions, he has a team of medical experts to support him.

We also have  re-entry programme which came after the 77bis reform. When 120 women came out of jail, they needed a support network. The public defence get advice through many different institutions working on social and health issues. The number of women incarcerated for introducing drugs in prison since then has reduced a lot, showing that judges are implementing alternatives to incarceration.

View the full PowerPoint.

Bikas, Nepal. All these stories are really depressing. How can we prevent women from entering prisons. How can we divert them away from prisons? How is UNODC trying to protect women from getting into prisons and how are you working with communities of people who use drugs?

Jeremy, UNODC. This is a really interesting question. What resonates here is the question of leadership. We have an issue with drugs and overcrowding here, which is causing many issues. What we are trying to do is move the narrative with policy makers which we hadn’t been able to do before. We need to educate the leadership on the necessity to change the situation. In the last presentation, we saw a positive example of leadership and a resulting change. In South East Asia, we can use leadership through ASEAN, the UNODC and others and hopefully we can get a policy change. On the practical level, we work on some policy frameworks with alternatives to imprisonment, as well as the provision of legal aid. We need to include this in a greater narrative. This event helps us reach out to a greater audience. On the inclusion of people who use drugs: we move through programmes and projects. This means the international community is our partner in that, and they are not prioritising the engagement of people who use drugs. We hope that this will change. We are working with institutions providing treatment and harm reduction but those are pilots. If we want to change the situation we need to engage at higher level to change the policy. We also need funding on drug issues.

Jane Holloway. Thank you very much!

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