An Analysis of the differential treatment of male and female inmates in prisons
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1.1 General Introduction
1.2 Background of the study
Across the world, recent decades have seen rapid and unrelenting growth in the use of
imprisonment as a response to crime and social disorder. In the 18th and 19th century, prisons were
built with the main purpose of retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation (Khani,
2014). Although Hair, (2016) describes prison as a difficult place to survive and adjust to with its
unique set of contingencies and pressures which inadvertently exact certain psychological costs on
most incarcerated persons. Depriving criminals of their freedom is a way of making them pay a
debt to society for their crimes. Today, well over 10 million people are imprisoned worldwide: this
number includes both men and women who have been sentenced to imprisonment following
conviction of a crime, and those who are being held in custody prior to trial or sentencing
(Jacobson, Heard and Fair, 2017).
This disproportionately harms poor and marginalized groups in
all societies like the women and youths. The geometric increase in the number of inmates limits
the capacity of prison systems to deal effectively with the small minority of female prisoners who
pose serious risks to public safety, and indeed increases the risks posed by prisoners (to themselves
as well as to others inside and outside prison walls) (Coyle et al, 2016).
Though statistics indicate that men are more likely to commit offenses that result in prison
sentences, there are many women who are convicted of crimes and required to spend time in jail.
Co-ed incarceration is not ideal for the safety and wellbeing of female inmates. Serious concerns,
such as sexual assault by male inmates, has promoted the creation of female prisons (LAWS,
Violence is frequent and widespread in prisons that contain male inmates, and as a result, detailed
hierarchical social structures are created. Male inmates often belong to prison gangs, in order to
obtain protection and security. In most instance, female inmates do not create this type of social
structure, or partake in gang related activity.
Nevertheless, there are some very serious concerns that women in prison must address. For
example, some of female inmates are pregnant upon entering into prison. In cases such as these, a
woman may be required to give birth to her child while she is in prison. The child may be taken
from her shortly after birth. Women who have produced a family prior to their prison sentence
often experience a great deal of emotional and psychological distress, due to separation from their
Though female inmates are generally more peaceful than male inmates, they do become
angry and depressed, and commonly partake in self destructive behavior.
In around four fifth of prison systems in the world, female inmates constitute between 2% and 9%
of the prison population. In Europe this percentage is 6.1% and is one of the lowest after Africa.
The female prison population has increased by 50% since 2000 against 18% for the male
population. 24.2% of female inmates are in pre-detention (World female imprisonment list, 2017
p 5-6). According to the United Nations on drugs and crime (2011), women are mostly imprisoned
for monetary crimes and are less likely to be found guilty of serious violence and criminal damage.
This is reflected in their sentences. As female prisoners are fewer, the distance to their home
communities is further which has greater impacts on their family relations and adversely affects
their children. Many female prisoners have been victims of violence prior to imprisonment, thus
women in detention are more prone than men to self-destructive behavior such as suicide. Gare
and Lloyd-Jones, (2014) upholds the above argument by stating that the increase in the number of
women imprisoned since the 20th century is associated with drug crimes and property crimes.
Changes in gender roles for women that increasingly are similar to the roles of men, especially
in the workplace, have been considered another reason that more women are incarcerated women
commit crimes previously only committed by men. According to White (2012), a typical offender
is a poor uneducated African woman who is likely on welfare and the sole caretaker of minor
children. The imprisonment of these women presents a major social problem as it puts pressure on
the social services and traumatizes the children they leave behind. While criminality is normalized,
the proportionally lower incidence of crimes committed by women means that female criminals
are defined against their male counterparts with the attendant notion that such behavior in the
female sex is abnormal and deviant (Straw, 2013: p 5).
Women’s incarceration impacts the broader picture of mass incarceration, especially after decades
of rapid growth. But separately from the bigger picture of mass incarceration, women’s
incarceration demands more attention because of the distinct ways in which prisons and jails fail
women and their families (Singer, 2013). Research consistently shows that incarcerated women
face different problems than men and prisons often make those problems worse. Women are more
likely to enter prison with a history of abuse, trauma, and mental health problems, but even in the
“secure” prison environment, women face sexual abuse by correctional staff or other incarcerated
women, and are more likely than men to experience serious psychological distress such as loss of
identity and low self-esteem. According to Kamoyo, (2018), inmates are denied basic privacy
rights and lose control over ordinary aspects of their day-to-day existence. Inmates live in small
sometimes extremely cramped and deteriorating spaces. These degraded conditions under which
they live serves as constant reminder of their compromised social status and their stigmatized
social role as prisoners. Women once incarcerated are subjected to procedures that cannot only be
argued as being sexual in nature but which also violates the prescribed norms of modesty of women
by stripping them naked. Many incarcerated women in Queensland prison, Kenya have reported a
sense of helplessness every time they are stripped naked.
Prior to the development of the all-female institution in the’ developed world, women were housed
in a separate unit within the male prison. This is still the case with prisons in the developing world
most especially prisons in Africa. Generally speaking, the conditions for women in these units are
horrendous and are characterized by excessive use of solitary confinement and significant acts of
physical and sexual abuse by both the male inmates and the male guards. To no surprise, there are
many prison related pregnancies that result from these interactions (Allen, Flaherty, & Ely,
2010).Women in these facilities continue to receive fewer resources compared to the male
incarcerated population especially those intended to solve the special needs of women such as
sanitary pads, tampons and even toilet paper (Anderson, 2006).
Aligning to the above assertion, the works of Alleyne, and (2006) also instigates that there has not
been a significant change of prison institutions in their design and philosophy to male institutions.
In the 20th and 21st centuries in the African continent, female inmates are simply warehoused, and
little programming or treatment is offered to inmates. Women in prison institutions are typically
convicted on felony and property-related crimes, with a third of women convicted of violent
crimes. Prison conditions for women at these facilities are characterized by unsanitary living
environments with inadequate sewage and bathing systems, work conditions that are dominated
by physical labor and corporal punishment, a lack of medical treatment for offenders, and the use
of solitary confinement for women with mental health issues. In many cases, these facilities are
located in remote areas of the state, far from the cities where most of the women are arrested and
where their families reside (Fontebo, 2013). In contrast, the sheer number of male facilities
increases the probability that these men might reside in a facility closer to their home, allowing for
increased frequency in visitations by family members.
In conformity to the above assessment there is the need for a gender analysis on the treatment of
male and female inmates given that inmates tend to face varied issues due to their physiology.
Women in custody face a variety of physical and mental health issues as compared to their male
counterparts and women in the general population. Given the high rates of abuse and victimization
these women experience throughout their lives, it is not surprising that the incarcerated female
population has a high demand for mental health services which in many cases, the criminal justice
systems of various states are ill equipped to deal with these women related issues. (Fiander, Chen,
Piche, and Walby, 2015). Women also face a variety of physical health needs (menstruation) more
than their male counterparts.
Women in prison are more likely to be HIV positive, presenting a unique challenge for the prison
health care system. These rates are significantly higher than the rates of HIV-positive incarcerated
men (Straw, 2013). Considering the lives of women prior to their incarceration, researchers have
found out that their pathways are filled with experiences of abuse, which in turn places women at
risk for unsafe sexual behaviors and drug use, factors that increase the potential for infection. For
example, women who are HIV positive are more likely to have a history of sexual abuse, compared
to women who are HIV negative (WPA, 2003). While women inmates have a higher need for
treatment (both in terms of prevalence as well as severity of conditions) compared to male inmates,
prison systems around the globe and most especially Africa are limited in its resources and abilities
to address these issues. For instance, most facilities in Africa most especially Cameroon are
inadequately staffed or lack the diagnostic tools needed to address women’s gynecological issues.
Women in prison generally have higher rates of chronic illnesses than the male population.
However, the demands for health services in prison significantly outweigh their availability
(Anderson, 2006). While several states have mandated reforms to health care in several prisons
such as those in the United State, women continue to receive fewer resources compared to the male
incarcerated population (Luscombe, Walby and Piche, 2015).
Incarcerated women face life circumstances that tend to be specific to their gender such as
menstruation, sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and the responsibility of being the
primary caretaker for dependent children.
The obstacles imprisoned women must overcome in
order to maintain a relationship with their children can be extremely frustrating (Allen, Flaherty,
& Ely, 2010). Loss of contact, coupled with an inability to meet social service contract
requirements resulting from a lack of visitations by the children via foster parents, places female
inmates at considerable risk of losing parental custody (Yager, 2015).
Many prisons in Africa are therefore poorly adapted to accommodate the special needs of women,
while the conditions of female imprisonment has attracted no attention in Cameroon as women’s
programmes are much neglected.
These programmes are underfunded and poorly equipped in
comparison to men’s programmes. The issue is even more complicated in Cameroon which has
not made provision for women’s prisons except for women’s wings in male prisons. This situation
is aggravated by the fact that the penitentiary administrators in Cameroon state that pregnant
women and those with children are not allowed in prison although this is not the case in reality.
There are no special care measures for women’s needs; pregnant women, mothers with children
inside the prison, or minor children outside the prison, or menstruation and issues specific to the
well-being of women inmates (Fontebo, 2013).
Following a report done by the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for (2011) Bureau of
Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the lengthy period of time in which pretrial detainees have
to wait to be trailed by the tribunal causes detention facilities to operate far beyond their capacity
thus the detainees have to live in conditions that violate their human rights standards. Inmates are
frequently detained incommunicado and without charge for well beyond the legal limit (Fontebo,
Once a person is charged, the law imposes an eighteen-month limit on pretrial detention,
but many pretrial detainees are incarcerated for as long as a decade. This situation tends to exert
more pressure on the female population as compared to their male counterparts who are the
impoverished group and cannot afford to bail themselves (Wolfenden, 2015).
Cameroon is obligated under the United Nations Convention against Torture and other cruel
inhumane degrading treatment of punishment to take legislative, judicial, and administrative and
other measures to prevent acts of torture and cruelty but this is certainly not the case following the
They also have as obligation under the African charter protocol to take measures
against harmful practices or all forms of violence and torture against women (such as death
sentences against pregnant and nursing mothers) and punish the perpetrators of violence against
women and implement rehabilitation programmes for the women victims (Noonan, 2015).
There is little or no empirical data on the gender analysis of the treatment of male and female
inmates in Cameroon prisons especially the Douala Central prison (DCP). This situation adds
credence in the need to carry out a gender analysis on the differential treatment of inmates in of
1.2 Statement of the problem