Vance Center: The Women in Prison Network during COVID-19

In 2018, ILAC’s member Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice convened the first international conference of women prisoners’ advocates in Bogota, Colombia, an event co-sponsored by Penal Reform International. Out of this conference was created the first-ever global network of advocates for women prisoners: The Women in Prison Network. Connected via an online platform, the Network includes 45 individual advocates and 34 organisations from a total of 21 countries representing every continent. The Network is a safe space for advocates to share information and best practices, seek collaborations, and build capacity for improved monitoring and reporting of conditions in women’s prisons worldwide. 

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vance Center has mobilised its Women in Prison Network to assess government responses to the crisis in detention centres for women in 17 Global South countries. While the virus does not discriminate, systemic inequality can make certain individuals or populations more susceptible to the disease. Individuals in prisons, in particular, are likely to be more vulnerable to contracting coronavirus due to living in confined and crowded conditions for extended periods, generally low standard of health care inside the prisons, and poor health status of people detained. As such, any response to tackle the public health crisis must be grounded with respect for human rights and be gender focused.  

Based on this assessment, the Vance Center and the Women in Prison Network, in collaboration with Penal Reform International, have engaged in a global advocacy campaign to improve government response to the pandemic in detention centers and ensure that it takes into account the unique needs of women. The Network  submitted open letters to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights drawing attention to the assessment’s findings. The letters call on the African and Inter-American Commissions to urge member states to ensure that all COVID-19 responses relating to the prison population adequately consider the special needs and unique risks of women deprived of liberty and lay out key recommendations.

The work of the Women in Prison Network on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in prison worldwide has been included in several multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the report Justice for Women Amidst COVID-19 and the article Coronavirus and women in detention: A gender-specific approach missing.