Protecting incarcerated women-Prison Reform


  • That a mother and child are inseparable is a truism. Odisha’s prisons validate it, but for a different reason. Here is why.
  • Forty-six children, aged between one month and six years, now live in prisons with their mothers, who are serving sentences for crimes from murder to kidnapping to drug dealing. Of the 25 girls and 21 boys, many are old enough to go to school. But they don’t.

Supreme Court Guidelines:

  • Cases of women prisoners with children should be disposed of expeditiously.
  • According to the SC guidelines, children below three years shall be allowed in crèche and those between two and three years should be looked after in nursery.
  • The prison authorities should run crèche and nursery outside the prison premises.
  • Small children should not be kept in sub-jails unless facilities are ensured for their biological, psychological and social growth.

India and World View:

  • In most parts of the world, including India, there are prisons exclusively for women. Tamil Nadu has some, with one recent estimate putting their current occupancy at 25%. Creches for children up to the age of 3 and nurseries for children up to 6 years are available. Older children are entrusted to relatives or voluntary organisations. 
  • In the West, the U.S. has the most acute problem. The same study suggested that the U.S. has a third of all women prisoners in the world; about 60% of them have children under 18 years. 
  • The European Prison Rules have been modified to make treatment of prisoners in all member-nations more civilised.
  • The World Health Organisation in particular has expressed concern over the reproductive health of women prisoners and the absence of maternal education during pregnancy.

A case for compassion

 Go for it before reading this article- “46 children are behind bars in Odisha, for no crime of theirs” (The Hindu, May 19, 2018), must focus attention on the status of women prisoners and their children remaining with them during detention.

  • Crime data show that there is a high rate of simple thefts among women prisoners.
  • In the case of non-violent women offenders, community service should be the main option for reform.
  • A jail term should be the last resort.
  • Once detained, a woman prisoner not only deserves compassion but should also be given standards of facilities more liberal than for men.
  • We may have to go a step further if a prisoner has children living with her in prison.
  • It is the fundamental duty of the state to do everything possible to see to their physical and emotional needs.


For criminal justice policy makers, there are now three challenges.

  • That a conscious effort should be made to reduce female incarceration is the general consensus. However, there is a general lack of will arising from an assessment that any radical departure from the law and practices is not going to earn votes for a government.
  • It is sad that there is such a lack of empathy despite research that women offenders are themselves victims of crime before they turn to crime.
  • The second challenge is on protecting the children of women prisoners. The one thing common is that most of them do not have physical and emotional support. Many are single parent children, usually with their mothers.
  • The final challenge is in protecting women inmates from sexual/non-sexual violence and their forceful initiation into substance abuse while in custody.


  • There is a clear case for the award of community service to those women who have been jailed for non-violent offences.
  • One more reason why many nations should adopt community service for female convicts who have had no record of violence. It would be an entirely different matter if such a convict commits an offence again after community service. In such cases she would be on a par with a male recidivist.
  • An all-female warden system is difficult as a small complement of male security staff is needed despite its attendant consequences. In this, technology can play a role.

Value Edition:

  • Children lodged in jails with their mothers are neither convicts nor undertrials. They are entitled to food, shelter, medical care, clothing, education and recreational facilities.


  • Regular visits by top officers to jails and situational reports by the probation officer would sort out most problems. Further, once they turn six, children must be handed over to a guardian as per the wishes of the mother or sent to an institution run by the Social Welfare Department. However, prison staff allegedly manipulate the children’s age to avoid official processes for complying with SC guidelines.
  • In the ultimate analysis, prisons can be made safer for women only by a mindset which is convinced that female offenders deserve compassion. 

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