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Ireland’s unequal treatment of women in the criminal justice system raised with the U.N. by IPRT

14th February 2017

ADVISORY

Ireland is sending too many women to prison for non-violent offences, including failure to pay court-ordered fines, and the lack of provision of gender-specific alternatives to prison and the lack of open prison facilities for women may amount to discrimination under the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

These are among the key issues that the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has raised with the UN in advance of Ireland’s examination under the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which takes place tomorrow (Wednesday 15th February 2017).

The issues faced by women in the criminal justice system in Ireland are detailed in IPRT’s Submission in Advance of the Examination of Ireland’s combined sixth and seventh periodic reports under CEDAW and include:

  • A disproportionate number of female prison committals for non-violent offences when compared with males;
  • A lack of gender-specific alternatives to custody;
  • Ireland’s two female prisons (Dóchas Centre and Limerick female prison) are consistently the two most overcrowded prisons in the State;
  • There is no open prison for women in Ireland;
  • Outcomes for women on the Community Return Programme are poorer than for men, with 60% returning to prison compared with 10-15% of men.

Commenting in advance of the hearing, IPRT Acting Executive Director, Fíona Ní Chinneide said:

“In 1999, at Ireland’s last examination under CEDAW, the Committee highlighted its concerns about women on the margins of Irish society. In 2017, Ireland is still imprisoning vulnerable women but at increasing rates. There were 155 committals of women to prison in 1999, and 3,411 in 2015. Just under 90% of female committals under sentence in 2015 were for fines default.”

“Given the complex needs of female offenders, their caring commitments and the likelihood of their offences to be non-violent, prison represents an ineffective response and often has a detrimental impact on their families and communities.”

“We need to radically rethink how Ireland punishes women, and invest in addressing the causes of offending behaviour, with particular focus on gender-specific alternatives to prison and wraparound post-release supports for the low number of women whose offences are so serious that prison is the only appropriate response.”

She added:

“Women in the criminal justice system are most often characterised by poverty, social disadvantage, limited access to education and higher levels of unemployment. These women are more likely to have experienced trauma, domestic and sexual abuse, poor mental health, addiction issues and homelessness. In effect, prison is a place of respite for some women from chaotic and dangerous lives on the outside.”

“In 2014, the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service acknowledged the lower risk presented by women offenders, and committed to developing a gender-informed approach to working with women offenders in custody and the community. We hope that the UN Committee will recommend Ireland acts on these commitments, within a set timeline.”

IPRT will also draw the UN Committee’s attention to other issues relating to women in the prison system: inadequate regimes; gaps in healthcare provision; and the need for specific services and post-release supports for vulnerable groups of women.

IPRT strongly welcomes the work of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in raising the issues faced by this group of marginalised women in Ireland directly with the U.N.

IPRT has travelled to Geneva as part of a delegation of Irish NGO stakeholders to present to the CEDAW Committee on Monday February 13th 2017, and the Irish Government will be examined by the CEDAW Committee on Wednesday February 15th 2017.

IPRT welcomes this chance to shine an international spotlight on the situation of women in prison in Ireland, and to recommend steps the Irish State must take to address discrimination against women in the criminal justice system and ensure better outcomes for women, their families and the community.

For all media enquiries or further comment, please contact Fíona Ní Chinnéide, IPRT Acting Executive Director: 087 181 2990

IPRT’s Senior Research & Policy Manager, Michelle Martyn is also available for comment from Geneva.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

1. IPRT Submission in Advance of the Examination of Ireland’s combined sixth and seventh periodic reports under CEDAW, January 2017, is available here.

2. IPRT also contributed to the NWCI Shadow Report in advance of Ireland's examination under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), January 2017, available here.

3. Figures:

  • There has been a significant increase in the number of women committed to prison, with 3,411 female committals in 2015, compared to 155 female committals in 1999.
  • In 2015, 80% (2,667) of female committals were for failure to pay court-ordered fines. (Source: IPS Annual Report 2015).
  • Female committals for fines default soared from 163 in 2007 to 2,667 in 2015.
  • 85% of women in prison in Ireland have addictions issues. (Source: Review of Drug and Alcohol Treatment Services for Adult Offenders in the Prison and Community, p.74).

4. IPRT’s overarching recommendations to the Irish State are:

  1. The State should ensure that Ireland is fully in compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Female Offenders (Bangkok Rules).
  2. The State should implement fully the Strategic Review Group on Penal Policy recommendations on female offenders and the Probation Service and Irish Prison Service (2014) Joint Strategy for Women who Offend.

5. In 2014, the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service acknowledged in their Joint Probation Service & Irish Prison Service Strategy 2014-2016: An Effective Response to Women who Offend, that the lower risk presented by women has resulted in provision of “generic offender based services to women offenders, designed for men in the first instance” and committed to “develop and implement a gender-informed approach to working with women offenders in custody and the community, based on evidence and best practice”. The strategy is available online at: http://www.irishprisons.ie/images/pdf/women_strat_2014.pdf

6. United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the ‘Bangkok Rules’) were adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2010 and provide standards for the specific characteristics and needs of women offenders and prisoners. The Bangkok Rules can be accessed online here: http://www.un.org/en/ecosoc/docs/2010/res%202010-16.pdf

7. The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort.