Antigone’s most recent report on detention conditions addresses an issue that is too often overlooked in the national approach to prison administration and organization: women’s detention. There are over 2,000 women currently detained in Italy, accounting for 4.2 percent of the whole prison population.
A gender question
The huge difference between the number of male and female prisoners has caused the whole detention system, from regulations to conditions to provisions, to be male-oriented. Even those prisons that exclusively host women are modeled after men’s detention facilities, and there is no prison that adopts a gender-related approach that could fulfill women’s specific necessities.
Antigone first tried in 2005 to foster the creation of a specific office, the Bureau for Detained Women, with the aim of managing all the prisons and detention facilities dedicated to women.
Unfortunately, the experiment did not turn out as expected: the bureau was incorporated into the already existing Department for Treatment and Detention of Men, depriving it of its own independence and power. Not long after, it was closed because of a lack of resources and staff.
Although the idea has since been reintroduced, at the moment there is no specific institution to directly manage women's detention, and there is hardly any attention given to the issue.
We need to talk more
Women in detention have access to fewer education and training opportunities, and they have on average lower education levels than male detainees. This eventually weighs on their chances to re-enter society and the workforce.
In addition to this, educators are not adequately prepared for the specific environment of a women’s prison: the inner balance, the relationships, the feelings are very different from those experienced among men and require a dedicated psychological training.
This is even more important when approaching women who live in prison with their children, making them particularly vulnerable and wary.
Although Italy formally provides several options for alternatives to detention, they are not easily accessible: women have to cope with bureaucratic issues and hang on administrations’ judgments and evaluations that can have a huge weight on their personal life and, when there are children involved, on their family ties.
It is necessary to completely re-think life inside prisons and introduce gender-specific considerations into the management of prison facilities and activities. It is time to put femininity at the center of debate and create an environment where it is not silenced or neglected.