The conditions for women in prison in Norway

In December 2016, the Parliamentary Ombudsman published its first thematic report under its OPCAT mandate. ‘Women in prison’ is a summary of the findings that concern female inmates from visits to high security prisons in the period 2014–2016.

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International research shows that prisons are often organised in accordance with the needs of male inmates, partly due to the low number of women in prison compared to men. This is reflected in prison architecture, security, the activities available and health services, among other things. In addition, an even higher percentage of women than men in prison come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They have more often been the victims of abuse in childhood, have extensive and untreated mental health problems and substance abuse problems.

The differences in prison conditions for men and women is a challenge well-known to the Norwegian Correctional Service

In 2015, a cross-disciplinary working group prepared the report 'Equal conditions for women and men under the responsibility of the Correctional Service' on behalf of the Directorate of the Norwegian Correctional Service.[1] The report concluded that change must be made at multiple levels and in various fields before the conditions can be deemed equal for men and women under the responsibility of the Correctional Service. The Directorate of the Norwegian Correctional Service (KDI) has announced that the report will be followed up by a separate strategy for the conditions for women in prison.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman’s thematic report addresses key issues relating to the conditions for women in prison, including the physical conditions, sense of security, activities, health services and contact with family. The report largely confirms that women in prison are a particularly vulnerable group. In many cases, they risk serving under worse conditions than men.

Physical conditions

Aging buildings pose a challenge to Norwegian prisons, as is well-documented in Statsbygg’s[2] 2015 annual report. Statsbygg stated that the maintenance backlog is vast, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s visits to Norwegian prisons have confirmed the physical conditions described by Statsbygg in its annual report.

The poor state of Norwegian prison buildings directly impacts the conditions for women in prison. For example, women have special sanitary needs, especially in connection with menstruation, menopause and pregnancy. This requires respect for their privacy and access to satisfactory sanitary facilities. The NPM visits showed that the cells in several prisons did not have toilets, and, in some of these prisons, it was not possible to be let out of the cell to go to the toilet at night. Such conditions are particularly challenging for menstruating or pregnant women, who often need more frequent access to toilets and washing facilities.

In 2016, Kragerø Prison was converted into a women’s prison and it was decided that the old section of Kongsvinger Prison, Section G, would be converted into a women’s section. It is positive that new prisons are being established for women. The Parliamentary Ombudsman is, nevertheless, concerned that the women’s prison in Kragerø and the planned new section for women at Kongsvinger Prison are located in old buildings that do not adequately address the needs of female inmates.

Physical activity

Possibilities for physical activity are an important precondition for mental as well as physical health during long periods of imprisonment. In both women’s prisons visited by the NPM, the possibility for physical activity outdoors was limited by the design and size of the exercise yard. This was particularly the case in Kragerø Prison, where the exercise yard was a 70-square-metre tarmacked area with little direct sunlight much of the year. Section G at Kongsvinger Prison, which was converted into a women’s prison in January 2017, also has an exercise yard that is smaller and more poorly equipped than the outdoor areas at most men’s prisons. Some of the prisons where men and women serve together have separate exercise yards for female inmates, but they are consistently smaller and more poorly equipped than the men’s yards. In some prisons, this is resolved by giving the women access to the men’s exercise yards. However, this entails security challenges and depends on personnel resources.

Sense of security

Most women the NPM spoke to stated that they feel safe in prison. There are, however, exceptions. In sections with few prison officers on guard, more women said that they do not feel safe. Mixed-sex prisons with both female and male inmates give rise to particular challenges. Despite most mixed prisons having separate women’s sections, inmates spend a lot of time together during work, school and leisure activities. A number of women have reported unwanted attention from male inmates, and there is a real risk of sexual harassment and abuse in such situations. Few prisons have special procedures and training in place to detect or deal with such abuse. The Parliamentary Ombudsman has recommended that written procedures be developed for such situations.

School and work

Meaningful activities, including school and work, can be crucial to counteracting the harmful effects of imprisonment and reducing the risk of future crime. However, the Parliamentary Ombudsman has found that work activities for female inmates are often inadequate or given low priority due to resource or security considerations. The fact that female inmates as a group have weak labour market attachment makes this even more problematic.

Health services

The health care services provided in prisons should be equivalent to the services provided to the general population. Inmates must be offered services adapted to their individual needs following an individual assessment.

During the NPM’s visits, inmates with mental health problems were often highlighted as a particularly vulnerable group. Several prisons described an increase in the number of women with mental health problems in recent years. The NPM found that many women have an unmet need for mental health support services. Both prison staff and administration as well as health services have echoed this concern.

A high proportion of female inmates have been the victims of sexual abuse. Many have negative experiences of men. This could make it difficult for women to seek help from male health personnel. The Parliamentary Ombudsman has recommended that steps be taken to ensure that women who, for whatever reason, want to see a female doctor have access to one.

The NPM’s visits show that access to substance abuse rehabilitation varies greatly between women and men, despite knowledge of widespread substance abuse among female inmates. In interviews with women serving in mixed prisons, it was clear that many want the opportunity to take part in additional and more extensive substance abuse rehabilitation programmes. After visits to prisons where such opportunities have been inadequate, the Parliamentary Ombudsman has recommended that women be offered substance abuse treatment equivalent to that offered to male inmates.

Contact with the outside world

Contact with the outside world, and particularly with family and children, is important to prison inmates. Since few prisons in Norway take female inmates, women risk being detained in prisons far away from their home. This makes it difficult for some inmates to receive visits from family. This applies in particular to children who are too young to travel alone and children who do not live in Norway. Very few of the prisons that the NPM has visited provide inmates with the possibility of communicating with family via Skype or similar modern means of communication. The Parliamentary Ombudsman has recommended in several visit reports that the Norwegian Correctional Service introduce such technology, also in high-security prisons.

[1] The Correctional Service (2015): Equal conditions for women and men under the responsibility of the Correctional Service (‘Likeverdige forhold for kvinner og menn under kriminalomsorgens ansvar’).

[2] Statsbygg is the Norwegian government’s key advisor in construction and property affairs, building commissioner, property manager and property developer. See http://www.statsbygg.no/Om-Statsbygg/About-Statsbygg/.