and the Death Penalty
(1) The Soviet Gulag
(2) Russia Today
(3) The Americas: Central America, Venezuela,
Ecuador, Brazil, the United States
Incarceration and capital punishment are among the most gender-selective of all repressive institutions. In most
countries of the world, the proportion of those incarcerated and executed is at least 95 percent male, often higher.
Although Gendercide Watch does not consider incarceration "gendercidal" in and of itself, in certain extreme cases
the associated death-toll may warrant use of the term. Orders of magnitude are also significant in deciding
whether to apply the framework to capital punishment. But if the witch-hunts in early modern Europe are
considered gendercides against women, then capital punishment -- a far more enduring and destructive institution -- may also qualify.
Along with military conscription, capital punishment (the death penalty) is the most male-exclusive of all
gendercidal institutions. It can be estimated with confidence that men constitute between 95 and 99 percent of
those executed by the state, across cultures and (with some qualification) throughout history. R.J. Rummel, for
instance, notes that
the death toll may be similarly high for official state executions for social or political reasons or, in our
contemporary perspective, for trivial infractions, such as stealing bread or criticizing the royal garden. ...
Historical statistics do not allow even a wild guess at an overall minimum number executed throughout the
world for trivial or political offenses or as part of government terror. But note that a very low estimate of
1,000 executed per year would add up to 5 million killed in fifty centuries. Make this a possibly more
realistic 10,000 such executions around the world per year and the pre-twentieth-century toll since Christ
would be 19 million people killed by the state for trivial offenses. Then there are the untold millions that
have died in prison or other forms of detention from simple mistreatment, neglect, malnutrition, exposure,
and preventable disease, as in the Soviet gulag. (Rummel, Death By Government, p. 66.)
Men can also be expected to constitute between 90 and 95 percent of those detained, imprisoned, tortured,
executed, and "disappeared," although this statistic will be subject to regional and environmental variations.
"Unofficial" (extrajudicial) executions are less of a male monopoly than official ones, though the male
predominance generally remains high or overwhelming.
In the estimation of Amnesty International (as reported by the Death Penalty Information Centre [DPIC]), "at least
4,272 prisoners in 39 countries were executed in 1996 and 7,107 persons in 76 countries were known to have
received death sentences. These numbers reflect only cases Amnesty International knows about; actual numbers
are probably higher." The ten worst offenders in 1998 were: China (1,067 executions); Congo (100); the United
States (68, but see below for 1999 figures); Iran (66); Egypt (48); Belarus (33); Taiwan (32); Saudi Arabia (29);
Singapore (28); and Sierra Leone (24). Amnesty also notes that "Hundreds of executions were reported in Iraq,"
but the organization "was unable to confirm most of the reports." Gendercide Watch is aware of no gender
breakdown for these "official" executions, but estimates on the order of 95 to 99 percent male, possibly higher.
On the brighter side, "58 countries had abolished the death penalty entirely by 1996 and 15 had abolished it for all
but exceptional crimes such as crimes under military law or crimes committed in exceptional circumstances such as
wartime. ... Over 20 nations and territories have abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes or all crimes since
1989." (Source: DPIC.)
IncarcerationIn both the developed and developing worlds, the proportion of males among those incarcerated is
roughly 95 to 99 percent. In Brazil and Venezuela, typical Third World cases, the ratio is 95 or 96 percent male
(Human Rights Watch, Behind Bars in Brazil, p. 23; Punishment Before Trial: Prison Conditions in Venezuela,
p. 7). In the United States, a more "developed" country, the figure is 94 percent. In Canada, there were 13,800
male inmates in federal penitentiaries in 1995, and 150 women; men thus made up 99 percent of the prison
population. (Peter Moon, "Prison crowding crisis building," The Globe and Mail, February 6 1995.)
Women prisoners are also much better treated than males worldwide. This is evident in Third World countries like
Brazil and Venezuela, discussed below. In Canada, overcrowding in prisons "is a male problem only." While
there is "sufficient cell space" for the small number of female prisoners, "For the men, living in closely confined
quarters leads to tension, violence and depression." (Moon, "Prison crowding crisis building.") Another report
notes that "Since double-bunking [sharing of cells] began in earnest in the early 1990s, suicides in federal prisons
... jumped from 11 in 1991-1992 to 24 in 1993-94. ... The issue ... was blamed for a series of disruptions and
murders in the prisons." (Martin Mittelstaedt, "Ontario ponders closing jails, making inmates share bunks," The
Globe and Mail, October 6 1995.) In the United States, Warren Farrell notes that "Any given man in prison is ...
1,000 percent as likely as any given woman to die via suicide, homicide, or execution." (Farrell, The Myth of Male Power,
Incarceration as Gendercide (1):
The Soviet Gulag
The term "gulag" is applied to the archipelago-like network of prison camps established throughout remote
regions of the Soviet Union, first under V.I. Lenin (1917-1924) and then under the genocidal regime of Joseph
Stalin (1927-1953). (For the classic account of the Gulag system, which won its author the Nobel Prize, see
Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956.) In a protracted fit of power-madness and paranoia matched
only by Adolf Hitler in modern history, Stalin laid waste to the post-revolutionary generation of Communist Party
cadres in the late 1920s and 1930s. In a time called by Robert Conquest "The Great Terror", hundreds of
thousands of innocent men were rounded up by the secret police (the NKVD, later the KGB) in the dead of night,
interrogated under torture, and executed in prisons and killing centres. Hundreds of thousands more were thrown
into the vast network of concentration camps across the USSR. They were joined by millions of male intellectuals,
professionals, and ordinary individuals who had run afoul of the system through something as minor as an off-the-cuff joke, or as vague as a charge of "anti-Soviet agitation." In perhaps the worst irony of all, the Gulag system
was bolstered in 1946 by the incarceration of tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners-of-war who had survived the
Nazi gendercide, and for this "crime" were viewed as "deserters" and "collaborators." A proportion of
women prisoners (ranging from 7 to 26 percent -- see further discussion below) was also thrown into the Gulag, often because of their family association with
a detained "traitor."
The process of arrest and incarceration of people who had, for the most part, served the revolution at the risk of
their lives was nothing short of Kafkaesque. Robert Conquest writes that the prisoners of the Soviet Gulag "were,
virtually without exception, entirely innocent of the charges brought against them":
Indeed, when it came to the lesser sentences of a mere ten years or so, this was more or less recognised, in
an oblique way, even at the time. The much-quoted story, recorded by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag
Archipelago, of a camp official retorting indignantly to a man serving a 25-year sentence, who had said he
had done nothing, that this was nonsense as "for nothing you only get ten years" is sometimes disbelieved.
It is interesting to find an almost identical incident printed in the Soviet press during the Khrushchev era.
The writer Boris Dyakov tells in it of how his interrogator said to him "Prove first that you are 100 per cent
crystal pure and you'll get ten years; otherwise -- a lump of lead." ... Similarly a soldier said to Evgenia
Ginzburg, "Of course you're not guilty. Would they have given you ten years if you had been?" (Conquest,
Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps [Methuen, 1978], pp. 228-29.)
Those who survived as far as the Gulags themselves found rampant official violence, malnutrition, crushing
overwork, and disease. The death-rate was worst in the Arctic and Siberian camps, some of which "can only be
described as extermination centres," according to Leo Kuper (Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth
Century, p. 150). He cites in particular the Kolyma camp, "where outside work for prisoners was compulsory
until the temperature reached -50C and the death rate among the miners in the goldfields was estimated at about
30 per cent per annum; Norilsk, the centre of a group of camps more deadly than Kolyma; and Vorkuta, with
temperatures below zero Centigrade for two-thirds of the year and especially deadly for prisoners from southern
Russia, who quickly succumbed to the extravagant cold, the exhaustion of hard labour and the starvation diet."
Robert Conquest gives a grim description of the working conditions in the mines at Kolyma:
For the prisoners who used the primitive lifts for descending into the mines there was a terrible risk, as the
cables holding the lifts were old and rusty, and more than once they snapped under the load of the humans
they were taking below. The work in the mines was a nightmare. No precautions were taken to protect the
workers against accidents. ... The air was always filled with heavy dust. As a result, many [prisoners]
developed silicosis. Not a single day would go by without an accident being reported. Either the power
supply [would] fail, prisoners would get stuck halfway, or a cable would snap and the lift would crash. The
maimed and badly injured were constantly being hauled off to the camp hospital. Lack of headgear caused
more accidents. Miners wore their Russian fur hats instead of helmets, and when large stones and rocks
poured down, a man was done for.
Conquest writes that Kolyma's "'conditions' were assisted by a massive employment of execution as a
reprisal against a failure to produce adequate gold, and, in effect, on any pretext whatever. ... More prisoners were
executed in the Serpantinka camp alone in the one year 1938, than the total executions throughout the Russian
Empire for the whole of the last century of Tsarist rule." (Conquest, Kolyma, pp. 51, 122-23, 229.)
How many died? "For Russians ... Kolyma is a word of horror wholly comparable to Auschwitz. And the first
and easiest point to remember is that it did indeed kill some three million people, a figure well in the range of that
of the victims of the Final Solution." (Kolyma, p. 16; see the detailed calculations at p. 227.) His assignation of
responsibility is difficult to dispute: the Gulag can be "attributed flatly and directly to the political system which
created it. ... It was that system, carried to its logical end. ... [It] was the way the Soviet government imposed itself
on its subjects." (Kolyma, pp. 230-31.)
The vast majority of those who died in the Gulag system as a whole were men, although no reliable figures are available on the actual proportion. Men made up 91.9 percent of Gulag inmates as of 1940, although this declined substantially during the years of the Soviet struggle against Nazi Germany (1941-45), when huge numbers of able-bodied male inmates were released to be sent to the fresh inferno of the battlefront. The proportion of women in the Gulag system accordingly rose to 26 percent in 1944 (at a time when women also constituted 31 percent of camp staff), falling off to 22.1 percent by 1949. (For the relevant statistics, see Robert W. Thurston, Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996], p. 138; and Galina Mikhailovna Ivanova, Labor Camp Socialism: The Gulag in the Soviet Totalitarian System [Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2000], pp. 94, 98, 155.) In general, conditions were significantly better in the camps for women, particularly with regard to the type of forced labour imposed. Women at Kolyma, for example, despite widespread abuses and serious health risks, enjoyed a "comparatively high
survival rate ... of course helped by the fact that they were not used in the gold mines." (Conquest, Kolyma, pp. 176, 179.) Some form of sexual slavery or concubinage was, however, integral to the survival of most women prisoners. For further discussion of the gendering of the "Gulag Archipelago," see the Stalin's Purges and corvée (forced) labour case studies.
Incarceration as Gendercide (2):
There is still no more murderous prison system in the world today than Russia, which additionally incarcerates a
higher proportion of its (male) population than any other country ("685 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants,
compared with 645 in the United States and 90 in France and Germany," according to Francois Bonnet). Writes
Bonnet: "Every year almost 10,000 prisoners die as a result of malnutrition, overcrowded conditions, or diseases
contracted in prison, especially tuberculosis." "It's true that some people on death row ask to be executed rather
than be sent to certain prisons," says the Russian justice minister. ("Russia in the dock over capital punishment,"
Guardian Weekly [from Le Monde], June 8 1999).
The violent prison environment is part and parcel of the police-state tactics that prevail throughout the detention
process and at street level. According to Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth, "Torture is epidemic in
Russia today." Daniel Williams writes that "Years of pledges to curb abuses, repeated complaints from human
rights groups and the pleas of common citizens have put no dent in either practice. Judges rarely look into
allegations of torture and readily accept questionable confessions as the quickest means to a conviction ... Human
rights observers suspect that of all criminal suspects in Russia, half are beaten or tortured while in custody. ... Jails
are overcrowded hot houses for disease. Criminal suspects are detained for months without trial. ... Human Rights
Watch detailed cases of deaths by asphyxiation, of suicides of prisoners so desperate to escape that they jumped
out of windows, of rapes and beatings by other prisoners, who in return for favors from police, rough up new
suspects." (Williams, "Rights group says Russian police behave like criminals," Guardian Weekly, November 25 -
December 1 1999.)
The reverberations of this police terror are felt far beyond the men who are directly targeted. Many mothers and
friends of detained men must spend much of their time seeking the release of the (usually unconvicted) convicts.
"I have been complaining for a year," one mother reported, as she wrote a complaint about the treatment of her
son, allegedly a drug-dealer. "And now I am here, because they say this office [a civil rights centre] tries to help.
But in fact, I have no hope anything will be done." (Williams, "Rights group ...") A vignette from neighbouring
Uzbekistan, where the formerly-Soviet prison situation is very similar, described "about forty women gathered ...
outside the Tashkent mayor's office to protest the illegal arrest and incarceration of their male family members."
Protesting for news of their loved ones, they also complained about "the harsh conditions they are forced to live
under while their husbands, brothers, and sons are in prison. One 46-year-old woman described the economic
hardship brought on by the absence of male family members: 'My husband died, my son has been arrested and now
we have two women in the house and four children. How can we live? We eat only bread, we don't have meat or
butter.' A 50-year-old woman described how police put her under administrative arrest for 15 days because of her
inability to pay rent after her husband went to prison." ("Uzbek Women Protest Illegal Arrests," Human Rights
Watch news release, November 18 1999.)
Incarceration as Gendercide (3):
"Central American prisons are a tinderbox, cultivating violent acts including rape, murder and drug trafficking,
according to human rights groups in the region. Prisoners are released 'trained and morally disposed to continue
being criminals as a result of their feelings toward society,' said Daniel Camacho, a Costa Rican who is
coordinator of the Central American Commission for the Defense of Human Rights. The prisons have no
rehabilitation programs, Camacho said. The state of prison facilities also contributes to the problem. Many of the
prisons housing 43,000 Central American inmates were built in the 19th century. Overcrowding has reached 146
percent in Honduras, 104 percent in El Salvador, 63 percent in Costa Rica, 60 percent in Nicaragua and 21
percent in Panama, according to the United Nations Latin American Institute. Many prisoners languish behind
bars for years even if they have been charged with committing only minor crimes. According to estimates, a high
number of prisoners have never even appeared before a judge: 90 percent in Honduras, 76 percent in Guatemala
and El Salvador, 67 percent in Panama, 27 in Nicaragua and 25 percent in Costa Rica. Corruption on the part of
lawyers is another problem ... many attorneys slow down their cases in order to earn more money. Not
surprisingly, the conditions have spawned prison uprisings in the region ..." ("Central American prisons harbor
violence: human rights group," Agence France-Presse dispatch, August 24 1997.)
"Inmates held for months without trial in squalid conditions have resorted to hunger strikes, sewn up their mouths,
even crucified themselves to draw attention to their plight. ... Once in jail, over 60% of inmates, having little
money, have no lawyer. People accused of minor crimes are thrown together with others convicted of drug
trafficking or rape. And in awful conditions. A human-rights activist, Alexis Ponce, says that nine prisons in ten
lack basics needed for health. The first cause of death in the main prison of Guayaquil, Ecuador's second city, is
tuberculosis." ("Prison fare," The Economist, September 12 1998.)
"Although known for their overcrowding, physical decay, and corruption, Venezuela's prisons are most notorious
for their extreme violence. Over the past decade, thousands of prisoners have died violent deaths at the hands of
their fellows. Some prisoners have been killed in headline-grabbing spasms of violence ... but many others have
died practically unnoticed, losers in the daily fight for survival in Venezuelan prisons. ... According to official
statistics, 207 prisoners were killed and 1,133 prisoners were injured in Venezuelan prisons in 1996, most by their
fellow prisoners. In other words, an average of four prisoners were killed each week and over twenty injured.
Although shocking, these numbers represent a decrease compared to past years. ... On the whole, women's
facilities tend to be cleaner, less overcrowded and better maintained than Venezuela's men's facilities, with
proportionally larger staffs, little violence, and greater work and recreational opportunities." (Human Rights
Watch, Punishment Before Trial: Prison Conditions in Venezuela, pp. 48, 52, 92.)
"[In January 1994] 127 prisoners in Sabaneta Prison in Maracaibo were killed in Venezuela's worst prison riot in
history. Ten of the dead should not have been in jail, but administrators had lost their release orders. 'While
security personnel stood by, a group of prisoners set fire to a prison housing building and then hit and stabbed
prisoners who tried to escape the inferno,' said Americas Watch, the New York-based human rights group. 'The
responsibility for this appalling violence falls squarely on the Venezuelan Government.' ... Feeling increasingly
cornered by crime, Venezuela quietly follows a policy of locking up the suspects and virtually throwing away the
key. According to the Justice Ministry, only 40 percent of Venezuela's prisoners have been tried. The rest await
trial, a process that can take up to five years. 'In a jail where there should be 700 prisoners, there are 2,100,'
Ruben Creizems, Venezuela's Justice Minister, complained recently . 'In a system where there are 33 jails,
there should be 99.'" (James Brooke, "In These Prisons, Hope Is Easily Abandoned," The New York Times,
October 19 1994.) (See also Mark Ungar, "Prison Mayhem: Venezuela's Explosive Penitentiary Crisis," NACLA
Report on the Americas, 30: 2 [September/October 1996].)
According to Amnesty International, "Criminal suspects and ordinary prisoners are forgotten victims of human rights violations in Brazil ... Packed into
dark, airless, vermin-infested cells, they are exposed to life-threatening diseases, and live in constant fear of assault
at the hands of other inmates or of being beaten or tortured by prison officers and police. ... Some 170,000
ordinary prisoners are currently incarcerated in Brazil, in more than 500 prisons, thousands of police stations, and
municipal jails. Every year, scores of deaths occur as a result of violence on the part of police and prison officers,
denial of medical care, and negligence by the authorities in preventing violence between detainees. The vast
majority of these death sin custody go uninvestigated and undocumented. In Brazil's police stations, torture -- as a
means of extracting confessions -- is widespread. Beatings and intimidation are also employed in prisons and
police stations as a means of controlling an ever-growing number of detainees. Weekly riots and violent incidents
suggest that the authorities are simply losing control of certain establishments. Overcrowding in Brazil's
crumbling jails means that thousands of pre-trial and convicted prisoners are held in civil police station lock-ups,
where some of the most serious cases of beatings and torture occur. According to a Brazilian government official,
'the prisons are purgatory, but the police stations are hell.'" (Amnesty International, "'Human beings, not animals'
- Brazil's prison crisis," news release, June 23 1999.)
Human Rights Watch notes: "As is true everywhere, the inmate population in Brazil is largely young, poor, male, and uneducated. Prison
surveys indicate that over half of all inmates are under age thirty; 95 percent are poor, 95 percent are male, and
two-thirds have less than an eighth-grade education ... Because of their poverty and marginal social backgrounds,
they and their families have scant political power, which translates into little ability to garner the necessary political
support to put an end to prison abuses. ... From the moment of arrest until their release from prison, Brazilian
inmates face chronic and sometimes extreme official violence." (Behind Bars in Brazil, pp.
23, 85; emphasis added.)
Human Rights Watch notes that many of Brazil's women prisoners (about 4 percent of the total) "suffer harsh
conditions of confinement and abusive treatment, including overcrowded penal facilities, insufficient medical and
legal assistance, and the inadequate provision of basic supplies." Nonetheless, "Female inmates are generally
spared some of the worst aspects of the men's prisons. Overall, women prisoners tend to enjoy greater access to
work opportunities; suffer less custodial violence, and are provided greater material support. ... Educational,
training, and cultural opportunities are somewhat less abundant but are still more easily available than in the men's
facilities. ... Human Rights Watch heard far fewer complaints of staff violence at women's facilities than at men's
facilities. Beatings were rare at most facilities -- with the most serious incidents involving outside police rather
than prison staff -- and even the sanction of isolation in punishment cells was not casually used. ... Overall,
relations between prisoners and guards in the women's prisons were much more cordial and friendly than they
were in the men's facilities, with genuine affection being expressed in some instances." (Behind Bars in Brazil, pp.
The United States
The shocking bias of U.S. capital punishment against minorities and the poor has long been recognized. "'Today,
whether you live or die in the USA as a result of your crimes appears to be largely determined by the colour of
your own skin and the race of your victim' said Pierre Sané, Amnesty International's Secretary General ...
prosecutors seek the death penalty more often, or in some cases solely, against blacks ... The odds of a death
sentence in which blacks killed whites has been shown to be as much as 11 times higher than in the murder of a
black victim by a white person. ... 'This refusal of the U.S. authorities to admit and address the fact that the death
penalty is being applied on the basis of race, ethnicity and social status is a key indication of the extent of the
problem,' Mr. Sané stressed." (Amnesty International, "USA: Death by discrimination," news release, May 18
Less often appreciated is the gender bias of capital punishment in the United States, though it is a much stronger
predictor than race or social class. According to the Justice Center Website of the University of Alaska -
Anchorage, "Of the 19,000 confirmed executions since 1608 in what is now the United States, only 515, less than
three percent, were executions of women. Until this year , Velma Barfield, executed in North Carolina on 2
November 1984, was the only woman executed in the U.S. since executions resumed in 1976." Two more women
have since been executed, for a total of 3 out of 596 (0.5%) between 1976 and December 1999. (See Paul
Duggan, "Rising Number of Executions Welcomed, Decried," The Washington Post, December 13 1999.)
The Death Penalty Information Centre notes that "Women are more likely to be dropped out of the system the
further the capital punishment system progresses. ... Women account for about 1 in 8 (13%) murder arrests; ... 1 in
52 (1.9%) death sentences imposed at the trial level; ... 1 in 77 (1.3%) persons presently on death row; and ... only
3 in 540 (0.6%) persons actually executed since ." (DPIC, "Women and the Death Penalty: Brief Facts and
Figures.") Using the updated figures cited in the previous paragraph, the statistic can be framed another way:
99.5% of those executed in the United States since 1976 have been male.
The bias against men carries over to juveniles and the mentally handicapped. Here, in fact, it is exclusively
underage and handicapped males who are killed by the state: "There are presently 58 inmates, all male, on death
row for crimes committed while juveniles. ... As of year-end 1997, 31 mentally retarded men had been executed in
the U.S. since 1976." (Source: Justice Center Website.)
Capital punishment increasingly seems a weapon of choice in the U.S. Ninety-nine prisoners -- all male -- were
executed in 1999, "a significant increase in government-sanctioned killing over last year, and far more than any
annual total since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976." (Duggan, "Rising Number of
Executions ...") (Update: On February 24, 2000, Betty Lou Beets became the fourth U.S. woman executed since 1976. See Michael Graczyk, "Woman Executed after Bush Rejects Plea for Clemency", The New York Times, February 25 2000. On May 2, 2000, Christina Marie Riggs was executed by lethal injection in Arkansas for suffocating her two children; she was the first woman executed in Arkansas in over 150 years.)
Numerous other abuses and atrocities can also be cited within the U.S. prison system, which has long been
notorious for its high rates of violence, torture, and rape (see the extraordinary efforts and resources of Stop
Prisoner Rape in the United States). Recent indictments by human-rights groups have cited the use of prisoners as
borderline slave labour: the prison population mysteriously continues to rise as crime rates fall nationwide.
Billions of dollars of corporate investments now depend on prisoners working for miserable wages (see "The
Prison Industry: Capitalist Punishment," Corporate Watch, October 28 1999). As Rage Against the Machine put
it in their 1999 song "New Millennium Homes":
Tha cell block livestock
Tha bodies they buyin'
Old south order
New northern horizon
This aspect of the U.S. prison system (and of others, notably China's) might legitimately be analyzed alongside
corvée labour, another institution historically gendered to the overwhelming detriment of men, and a gendercidal
one at many times and in many places. This little-studied institution receives separate case-study treatment
elsewhere on the site.
[ Further reading ] [ Back to main ] [ Back to top ]
The most wide-ranging
book ever published on
killing, or "gendercide,"
this collection of
essays is also the first
to explore systematically
the targeting of non-
males in various wartime
and peacetime contexts.
and a full
table of contents.
and the West
well selected, brilliantly
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atrocity yet published.
The cumulative impact of
the volume is a devastating
indictment of state terrorism
as practised by the West,
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- Richard Falk, Professor
and a full
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