Bangkok Rules

Title : The Design of Women Institution Facilities in accordance with the Bangkok Rules

By Dr. Nathee Chitsawang

     It could be argued that the prison design is considered as one of the significant factors behind the overall success in the prison administration and the treatment of prisoners in each correctional facility. To put it simply, the good prison design can help and enhance the great efficiency in various aspects of prison work: the custodial task, the rehabilitation and the provision of prisoner welfare. Accordingly, all correctional administrators and prison executives must be fully aware of its importance and pay attention on the key issues relevant to the prison design. Having said this, it is undeniable that in the past the main focus was on the planning and design of men’s prisons as male prison inmates have been actually the majority of prison population. It is also worth noting that previously the special design for the women institution facilities was comparatively rare

     However, over the last few years there was a noticeable change in the trend towards prison population since the number of female prisoners in many countries has been dramatically rising. The ratio and the gap between the male and female inmates have become increasingly narrow. Crucially, the bottom line is that most of correctional facilities for female prisoners still remain the same. In other words, they do not adapt to the change in the increasing number of female prison inmates. Generally speaking, it is found that in many countries, the female inmates are still incarcerated in the small unit situated in the same area of men’s prisons. Unavoidably, their prison space has become severely overcrowded when the total capacity is still the same while their number has been, on the contrary, continuously increasing.


     To deal with this problem, on the one hand the establishment and construction of some new female correctional institutions might be an ideal solution to offer many more spaces but on the other hand, it could create some practical difficulties. For example, the female prisoners tend to be imprisoned in a facility far away from their homes and families as it is impossible to build women’s prison in every jurisdiction/province like most of men’s prison did. In addition, there was a typical effort to convert and adjust some prisons initially designed and built for men to be the women correctional institutions. But unfortunately it was not successful and inappropriate since women inmates had their unique needs and special necessities different from men’s, especially the physical difference and the social status as a mother. As such, the treatment of female prisoners has to be shaped to underline and well respond to the differences between male and female inmates. More importantly, this issue must be more highlighted when the United Nations approved ‘the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders’ or usually known as ‘the Bangkok Rules’.


     The primary objectives of this paper are to explore and then point out some issues of the Bangkok Rules which can be linked to the prison architecture and design for women institution facilities. These are very crucial for all people involved in the prison construction, both the prison authority and the prison architects or designers to fully acknowledge at the earliest step before the new start of the projects.


     First of all, it is worth mentioning that the major purpose of the Bangkok Rules is not to replace the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures or the Tokyo Rules (U.N. General Assembly, 2011). In fact, it is believed that there should be a helpful suggestion to the member states to provide this group of prisoners with the treatment which is in accordance with the resolutions that the United Nations had previously agreed in this matter. These rules could be called as ‘the Bangkok Rules’ because Thailand was the place where the rules were originally developed. In brief, the rules are composed of 4 major parts:


Section I: Rules of general application

Section II: Rules applicable to special categories of prisoners described under each subsection, i.e. pregnant women and mothers with children in prison, foreign prisoners, minorities and indigenous people as well as the prisoners under arrest or awaiting trial and so on.

Section III: Non-custodial measures

Section IV: Research, planning, evaluation and public awareness-raising


     Considering the issues relevant to the prison design and construction which should be accomplished to support the treatment of women prisoners and to conform with the Bangkok Rules, there exist some crucial points to be focused as follows:


1. The general design of women’s prison


     Currently, the correctional agencies in many countries try to design correctional facilities that are responsive to the needs of women inmates. By doing so, the architects usually design the projects by focusing on creating the atmosphere and environment which appear basically similar to the world outside as much as they could. For example, many outdoor areas are designed for the physical exercise and vocational training activities. Also, it is generally believed that the female prison inmates tend to have lower risks than men in attempting a prison escape due to a lack of physical strength and the low incidence rates of attempted escape, and occurrence in prison riot or disturbance. Because of these, in terms of the critical consideration of the security level the design could be come up with more relaxed and compromising elements than of men’s prison. Moreover, in practice the level of security might not be a decisive factor because the women inmates categorized into maximum, medium and minimum custody levels tend to be normally housed within one prison


     Regarding the women inmates who are not dangerous and considered as having low risks, the current trend in women correctional institution design is to move them away from the traditional institution to serve their prison terms in the facility designed towards a ‘cottage style living unit’. To illustrate, they are housed together with 7 to 8 women per cottage where they have their own bedrooms, and shared kitchen. The women inmates can cook and prepare their own meals. Some examples of this type of facility can be currently found in the Fulham Correctional Center in Australia and the Whitehorse Correctional Center in Yukon, Canada (Munson, 2009). Nevertheless, it seems that this style has not been yet followed in the Asian countries. In Thailand, the open prisons for female prisoners also form the style of house living but there are only beds or futons provided without the kitchen and the possibility for them to freely do their own activities

     ‘ Prison authorities shall encourage and, where possible, also facilitate visits to women prisoners as an important prerequisite to ensuring their mental well-being and social reintegration.


     The principal reason behind this rule is the general belief that the visit from family and relatives can have many positive impacts: both on a good relationship among prison, society and the families of women prisoners; and on the future success in the reintegration of the inmates. Therefore, the design of women institution facilities has to pay attention and take this factor into sufficient consideration.


   Central to this concept, the first and most essential step is to find the suitable location of correctional establishment as the women prison facilities should be geographically located near the city that is easy for the inmates’ families and other people offering rehabilitative activities to access. As described in Rule 4:


     ‘ Women prisoners shall be allocated, to the extent possible, to prisons close to their home or place of social rehabilitation, taking account of their caretaking responsibilities, as well as the individual woman’s preference and the availability of appropriate programmes and services.’

     It should be noted that apart from the design of women correctional institution in both maximum and medium security levels, the prison architects and designers should also pay attention on the design and planning of the unit for women prisoners situated in the men’s prison. It is widely accepted that there are many female inmates, especially the unconvicted inmates and those serving short prison sentences, imprisoned in some women’s units annexed to men’s prisons all over the country because it is impossible to specially construct the women correctional institutions for them in all provinces.


     In fact, the design and planning processes of this type of setting are immensely crucial for the successful implementation of the Bangkok Rules because of the fact that previously the number of inmates in the women’s unit annexed to men’s prison tended to be low but later when their number has been dramatically increased; it is unable to suddenly expand their spaces. As a result, they have to live in an overcrowded condition and to receive unequal treatment comparing to men prisoners do, as well as to miss the opportunity to access the education and vocational programs. Conversely, the only one benefit in this case is that they are imprisoned in the establishments near or closed to their homes. Therefore, it seems easier for their family and relatives to come to visit them more often. Because of these significant reasons, it seems necessary for the prison architects to well prepare and plan in advance on expanding more available spaces of the unit and on fulfilling all major criteria for properly treating the women prisoners in line with the Bangkok Rules at the earliest stage.

 2. Social relations and visiting


     The social relations and visitation are very important for the life of female prisoner behind bars. According to the rule 43, it is stated that


     The design of women institution facilities should cover both primarily contact visitation and non-contact visiting booths. Particularly for the medium and minimum security institutions, the contact visitation is absolutely necessary. In some cases that the prison authority believes it is appropriate and the law allows this practice, there might be a house designed and decorated like a normal private home for conjugal visit or family visit which the husband/wife or family of the inmate can come to stay overnight. However, it is crucial to note that one of the major security issues in visiting is the smuggling of contraband and prohibited items into the facility by the visitors. Women institution officers have to face ongoing problems in carefully screening the visitors. Further, due to the prison overcrowding the lack of dedicated visiting space for visitors can easily be found in many women institution facilities. Consequently, the design of women’s prison must also focus on these particular issues. The women institution facilities should be designed and planned to have enough space for searching and screening visitors by prison staff. Besides, some vital electronic equipment and efficient technology must be utilized to assist this screening process.


3. Pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and mothers with children in prison


     Among all the Bangkok Rules, the rules from 48 to 52 promoted all necessary measures to treat the pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and mothers with children in prison.


Rule 48


  1. Pregnant or breastfeeding women prisoners shall receive advice on their health and diet under a programme to be drawn up and monitored by qualified health practitioner. Adequate and timely food, a healthy environment and regular exercise opportunities shall be provided free of charge for pregnant women, babies, children and breastfeeding mothers.
  2. Women prisoners shall not be discouraged from breastfeeding their children, unless there are specific health reasons to do so.
  3. The medical and nutritional needs of women prisoners who have recently given birth, but whose babies are not with them in prison, shall be included in treatment programmes.


Rule 49


     ‘ Decisions to allow children to stay with their mothers in prison shall be based on the best interests of the children. Children in prison with their mothers shall never be treated as prisoners.’


Rule 50


     ‘ Women prisoners whose children are in prison with them shall be provided with the maximum possible opportunities to spend time with their children. ’


Rule 51


  1. Children living with their mothers in prison shall be provided with ongoing health-care services and their development shall be monitored by specialists, in collaboration with community health services.
  2. The environment provided for such children’s upbringing shall be as close as possible to that of a child outside prison.


Rule 52


  1. Decisions as to when a child is to be separated from its mother shall be based on individual assessments and the best interests of the child within the scope of relevant national laws.
  2. The removal of the child from prison shall be undertaken with sensitivity, only when  alternative care arrangements for the child have been identified and, in the case of foreign-national prisoners, in consultation with consular officials.
  3. After children are separated from their mothers and placed with family or relatives or in other alternative care, women prisoners shall be given the maximum possible opportunity and facilities to meet with their children, when it is in the best interests of the children and when public safety is not compromised.


     Clearly, this particular issue is entirely different from the needs of men inmates. It should be, therefore, highlighted by the architects and designers planning and designing the women’s prison. The underlying reason is that its design can greatly affect the mother’s ability to maintain a strong parent-child relationship. Hence, in order to help and facilitate the reunification of inmate with her child, the design of an institution environment should give priority to the maternal role of women prisoners.

     To give some examples, there should be a special design of various types of rooms for this group of women inmates: a classroom for pregnant inmates which might be in the same area of the baby room in prison, a room where the mother and her baby can stay closely together at night, a room for breastfeeding, and a nursing room for the baby or children. Generally these rooms must be located in an appropriate environment and have to stay very clean and hygienic. By doing so, the baby and children can be raised and nurtured in a good environment which positively influence the child development in many aspects. The South African prison service could be a good example of trying to make a better environment for children growing up in jail.  Recently, Johannesburg prison has newly built mother and baby unit to let the mothers, who are convicted criminals, have the chance to bond with their children in better conditions (BBC News, 2013).


     Moreover, there must be an adequate place for children who do not stay with their mothers behind bars but are still under the age of years indicated in the prison rules to be able to visit and do some activities with their mothers in prison. All these issues are quite sensitive and vital for the prison architects who are usually a group of men to bear in mind and design the facilities reflecting and responding to the women’s needs.


4. Discipline and punishment


     Another interesting point to discuss is about the discipline and punishment. The rule 22 of the Bangkok Rules suggested that:


     ‘ Punishment by close confinement or disciplinary segregation shall not be applied to pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers in prison. ’


     This rule originally intends to properly protect the pregnant offenders and a group of women sent to prison with their infants from some forms of isolated imprisonment. Nonetheless, in many countries they have already eliminated the solitary confinement or the dark cells used as the disciplinary punishment for inmates who broke the prison rules and regulations. In some cases, there might be still a segregation cell to prevent the inmate from harming him/herself or the others, and to protect him/her from being harm by other inmates which is a kind of protective custody. As a result, this type of prison cell must not be dark and dim or have any element reflecting a sense of punishment. Also, the inmates must have basic rights to remain in contact and receive a regular visit from their families and relatives. In short, the person who is in charge of constructing and designing the women’s prison must not build or decorate the cells to be used as a form of punishment.

5. Place for conducting searches


The prison search might be recognized as a normal practice in men’s prisons but,on the contrary, in women institutions there must be some special attention in particular the body and strip searches. The prison officers have to ensure that the women inmates’ dignity and respect are protected. Particularly for the invasive body searches and strip searches should be conducted only when they are absolutely unavoidable and no any other measure could be done in that case. As a consequence, the design of women’s prison should not deliberately neglect or overlook this particular concern. For instance, there should be a room for special cases of searches at the entrance or main gate of the establishment. Besides, the prison authority should install the equipment or other technologies to replace the strip searches. The Rules 19, 20 and 21 of the Bangkok Rules stated some relevant measures:


5. Place for conducting searches


     The prison search might be recognized as a normal practice in men’s prisons but, on the contrary, in women institutions there must be some special attention in particular the body and strip searches. The prison officers have to ensure that the women inmates’ dignity and respect are protected. Particularly for the invasive body searches and strip searches should be conducted only when they are absolutely unavoidable and no any other measure could be done in that case. As a consequence, the design of women’s prison should not deliberately neglect or overlook this particular concern. For instance, there should be a room for special cases of searches at the entrance or main gate of the establishment. Besides, the prison authority should install the equipment or other technologies to replace the strip searches. The Rules 19, 20 and 21 of the Bangkok Rules stated some relevant measures:


Rule 19


     ‘Effective measures shall be taken to ensure that women prisoners‟ dignity and respect are protected during personal searches, which shall only be carried out by women staff who have been properly trained in appropriate searching methods and in accordance with established procedures.’


Rule 20


     ‘Alternative screening methods, such as scans, shall be developed to replace strip searches and invasive body searches, in order to avoid the harmful psychological and possible physical impact of invasive body searches.’


Rule 21


     ‘Prison staff shall demonstrate competence, professionalism and sensitivity and shall preserve respect and dignity when searching both children in prison with their mother and children visiting prisoners.’


6. Health care

     According to the Bangkok Rules, it may be particularly noticeable that the health care service is largely focused. Starting from the rule 6 to rule 18, many points regarding the health care services are described including the medical screening on entry, the gender-specific health care, the mental health and care, the preventive health care services, HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, and so on. However, it should be noted that the gender-specific health care seems very crucial and should be paid attention because it shows some special health needs of women. The rules 10 and 11 stated that:


Rule 10


  1. Gender-specific health-care services at least equivalent to those available in the community shall be provided to women prisoners.
  2. If a woman prisoner requests that she be examined or treated by a woman physician or nurse, a woman physician or nurse shall be made available to the extent possible, except for situations requiring urgent medical intervention. If a male medical practitioner undertakes the examination contrary to the wishes of the woman prisoner, a woman staff member shall be present during the examination.


Rule 11


  1. Only medical staff shall be present during medical examinations unless the doctor is of the view that exceptional circumstances exist or the doctor requests a member of the prison staff to be present for security reasons or the woman prisoner specifically requests the presence of a member of staff as indicated in rule 10, paragraph 2 above.
  2. If it is necessary for non-medical prison staff to be present during medical examinations, such staff should be women and examinations shall be carried out in a manner that safeguards privacy, dignity and confidentiality.


     Therefore, the design of women’s prison must include the planning of medical unit specifically for women prisoners since they should receive gender-specific health care services similar to other women in wider society do. This is very important and should be considered as a basic requirement, especially for the women prisoners housed in the women’s unit annexed to men’s prison to have and be able to gain access to their own medical unit operating separately from the men’s prison.




     To sum up, there are various aspects of the prison design which can be linked to the Bangkok Rules. These points are very important as they can help the prison architects to acknowledge all of the women prisoners’ special needs and basic necessities which are fundamentally different from men’s. Consequently, in order to perform the efficient prison tasks in accordance with the Bangkok Rules, the prison design can obviously become one of the crucial roles in supporting the successful implementation of the Bangkok Rules and providing the women prisoners with the humane and more effective treatment. Most importantly, it can raise the standard of each society in treating its members to reach the international level as the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1862) said that the ‘degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’