Thursday, September 24, 2020

Big Increase in Women Behind Bars in China

Female inmates in political and education reform classes. Image credit: Hubei Prison Administrative Bureau 2019

Statistics released by China’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and recently published by the World Prison Brief have revealed a significant increase in the number of women prisoners incarcerated in MOJ prisons since 2015, the last year for which a number was made available prior to 2019. The numbers were provided in a statement by an MOJ official to the Asia Pacific Conference of Correctional Administrators (APCCA) meeting in Mongolia. The number of women prisoners in MOJ prisons in 2019 has yet to be made available.
As of mid-2015, there were 107,131 female prisoners in MOJ prisons, accounting for 6.5 percent of China’s population of prisoners held in all MOJ-administered prisons and juvenile reformatories. The number rose to approximately 143,000 as of mid-2018, equivalent to 8.4 percent of that population. This represents an increase of approximately 34 percent over a three-year period, or an average growth rate of more than 10 percent per year. 

The numbers exclude women prisoners in Qincheng Prison, which is managed by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). More significantly, the numbers do not include women held in pre-trial detention centers operated by the MPS and the State Security Ministry. Nor do they include women held in other carceral facilities like “legal education centers,” often used to hold female petitioners and practitioners of unorthodox religious groups like Falun Gong and Almighty God. A large but unknown number of Uyghur and Kazakh women in Xinjiang who are involuntarily held in a network of internment facilities known as “vocational training centers” are also omitted in the MOJ statistics. Finally, it should be borne in mind that the numbers are for adult females and do not include juvenile females incarcerated in juvenile reformatories run by the MOJ. 

† Figures only available as of the middle of the year. 
‡ This is an approximate figure. Dui Hua estimates suggest that the actual figure may be higher. 
Sources: For 2003-2015 figures: Dui Hua, China Statistical Yearbook 2005-2013, APCCA Conference Report 2013-2015; For 2018 figure: World Prison Brief

In February 2014, Dui Hua, together with partners, held an International Symposium on Women in Prison in Hong Kong. The symposium, which aimed to introduce the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners (the Bangkok Rules), was well attended by officials from China. In October of the same year, Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm traveled to Beijing where he and Judge Leonard Edwards met with Mr. Wang Shengming, Vice Chairman of the Internal and Judicial Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress. Wang advised the two Americans that China was considering incorporating the Bangkok Rules into Chinese legislation, but to date little appears to have been done. Rather than adopt policies that slow the influx of women prisoners, China seems to have opted to build more women’s prisons. 

To cope with the rising number of women sentenced to prison, China has built 10 new women’s prisons since 2015. There were 31 women's prisons in mid-2015, 38 in mid-2017, and by mid-2018 there were 41.i In the past, most provinces had only one prison for women. Now, ten provinces have two, and Yunnan has three. Noticeably, the Tibetan Autonomous Region does not have a women’s prison. By building more prisons, China has managed to keep the average number of prisoners per prison stable at around 3,500 per prison, high by international standards. Overcrowding of Chinese women’s prisons remains a serious problem. 

Sources: China Statistical Yearbook 2013, APCCA Annual Report 2015, World Prison Brief

In its 2019 submission to the thematic session of the United Nations Working Group on Discrimination Against Women in Law and Practice held in June 2019, Dui Hua urged the MOJ to release the current number of women held in its prisons. Several months after Dui Hua made this recommendation, the MOJ released the mid-2018 figure to the APCCA at its September 2019 meeting in Mongolia.

Hong Kong’s Correctional Services department has also released numbers that are published in World Prison Brief. They reveal that, in 2019, more than 20 percent of the territory’s prison population were women, one of the highest such percentages in the world. Nearly half are non-local and convicted of non-violent crimes, including drug trafficking and immigration violations.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there were 130,000 women in American prisons and 101,000 in local jails in 2019. The number of women in Chinese pre-trial detention centers is not known. It nevertheless appears to be the case that the number of women in Chinese prisons now exceeds the number of women in American prisons, as Dui Hua predicted in its Human Rights Journal entries published in June 2015 and February 2016.

A list of the 41 women’s prisons administrated by the MoJ is below.