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Toward a more humane penal system


In Australia, the New South Wales Parliament recently heard the results of an extensive study undertaken by the Standing Committee on Social Affairs, charged to investigate the effects of the incarceration of mothers on their children.

Among the observations of that committee are these:

"It is very clear that at all stages of the criminal justice system, the needs and rights of the child of an accused or sentenced person must be recognized. To ignore the care and protection of these children is for the state to impose cruel and unusual punishment on innocent children."

A social scientist interviewed by the committee said: "Women are judged more harshly than men and a great social stigma is attached to their criminal activity. There is absolutely no research material to support a label of bad woman/bad mother. It is the labeling of a vengeful society."

The committee's recommendations for reform were extensive and included instituting more community-based sentencing options like periodic detention, home detention, and enforced drug treatment instead of incarceration.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International, in a recent report titled "Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody," described extensive violations of the internationally guaranteed human rights of women incarcerated in the United States. Violations include:

rape and sexual assault by prison officials with impunity;

shackling of pregnant prisoners, especially during labor, delivery and post-partum;

seriously inadequate medical care leading to death, permanent injury and


The report points out that 70 percent of guards in U.S. federal prisons are male, contrary to international standards which call for female prisoners to be supervised by female guards. By contrast, in Canada women inmates are guarded by other women more than 90 percent of the time.

For the complete report, see:

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