On March 24, professors and students of Cornell Law School’s Global Gender Justice Clinic travelled to the Brooklyn Museum in New York City to participate in “Women in Jamaican Prison: Local and Global Implications,” part of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art series States of Denial: The Illegal Incarceration of Women, Children, and People of Color.
Professor Elizabeth Brundige presented the Global Gender Justice Clinic’s preliminary findings from a research project on the causes and consequences of women’s imprisonment in Jamaica. Citing violence, drug trafficking, lack of job opportunities, and poverty as major causes of women’s incarceration in Jamaica, Brundige reiterated that Jamaica has a duty to comply with the Bangkok Rules, the only international human rights guidelines to directly address the needs of imprisoned women. Brundige is assistant clinical professor of law, assistant dean for international programs, and executive director of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School.
Brundige was joined by project partner Dr. Aldrie Henry-Lee, senior research fellow at the University of the West Indies, and Donna Hylton, advocate for prisoners’ human rights in New York, who presented different perspectives on women’s imprisonment in Jamaica and in the United States. The panel discussion was moderated by Marie Claude Jean-Baptiste, director of the Human Rights and Access to Justice Program at the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, which is also a partner on the project investigating the causes and consequences of women’s imprisonment in Jamaica.
Henry-Lee presented conclusions from her 2005 report on the impact of incarceration on women and their families in Jamaica. She emphasized that because the Jamaican prison and justice systems were designed primarily for men, they do not take into account the specific needs of women, including their needs for particular health services and for rehabilitation tailored to ensure their successful reintegration in the community. Moreover, Henry-Lee explained that “when you incarcerate a woman, you incarcerate a family,” as the imprisonment of a mother has severe consequences on her children. To that end, she noted that it is important to ensure that women can communicate with their families while in prison, including through regular family visits. Donna Hylton shared her experience as a former woman inmate in a New York State prison facility and explained how that experience informed her decision to become a prisoners’ rights advocate. Hylton outlined how poverty is a root cause of women’s incarceration, not only in Jamaica but also in the United States, noting that “when you spend many years in prison, you see that women who are imprisoned come from poor backgrounds, and lack of opportunities is a common denominator among them.”
The event ended on a proactive note as the panelists agreed that no matter where women are incarcerated, advocates will continue to work to ensure that criminal justice systems take into account women’s needs.
The Clinic’s research project on women’s imprisonment in Jamaica is being carried out in partnership with the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School, the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar Association, the University of the West Indies at Mona, Evolve International Jamaica, and LEX Caribbean. The researchers will produce a final report that will summarize the results of the study, highlight best practices, and make recommendations for improvements. Following the report's publication, the researchers plan to collaborate with Jamaican civil society and justice system actors in addressing the gaps and challenges identified in the report.