WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
21 May 2015 | News

Women Across the Americas Incarcerated for Minor, Non-Violent, Drug-Related Crimes at an Alarming Rate


Washington, D.C.—Today, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), and the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) announce the launch of a new investigative website and photo essay to shed light on the human and societal cost of current drug policies in the Americas. The website, which highlights the efforts of a working group of international experts, provides up-to-date research and analysis on gender-related trends in drug policy and options for reform, while the photo essay shows the human cost these policies have on women in Latin America. The project includes experts from across the hemisphere, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Uruguay.

To visit the investigative website, please click here.

To view the photo essays, please click here.

Women across the Americas are being incarcerated for minor, non-violent, drug-related crimes at an alarming rate. In Argentina, Brazil, and Costa Rica, well over 60 percent of each country’s female prison population is incarcerated for drug-related crimes; in Ecuador, that number tops 80 percent. The vast majority of these women are not imprisoned for large-scale drug trafficking offenses, but rather for carrying out low-level, high-risk tasks.

The policies that have led to this surge in imprisonment have torn apart families and crippled women’s abilities to find decent, legal employment once they have been released, perpetuating a vicious cycle of desperation and incarceration.

“The devastating impacts of incarceration on these women, their families, and the communities in which they live point to the immediate need to reform drug laws that have served as a foundation for excessively harsh and disproportionate sentences against them,” said Rodrigo Uprimny, Executive Director of Dejusticia and a former member of Colombia’s Constitutional Court. “There is an urgent need to implement alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent offenders, particularly those from the most vulnerable sectors of society.”

The international working group, comprised of government officials, lawyers, researchers, and advocates, will develop a guide that recommends strategies for public policy reform applicable to women incarcerated for drug offenses. These guidelines will serve to inform and advance policies that protect the rights of these women and help end the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.

To complement this guide, WOLA has created a photo essay to show the human cost of current drug policies in the Americas. The photos tell the stories of four women, each providing a unique insight into the deeply troubling cycle of poverty, low-level involvement in the drug trade, imprisonment, and recidivism into which women are too often pushed.

“Current drug policies have filled the region’s prisons to bursting with low-level, non-violent offenders, while the heads of drug smuggling rings walk free,” said Coletta Youngers, WOLA Senior Fellow. Nischa Pieris added, “These stories paint a picture of vulnerability, desperation, and incarceration in the Americas. Although these particular narratives take place in Costa Rica, such stories are disturbingly common across the region.” Youngers and Pieris are co-coordinators of the project.

The narratives are based on interviews conducted with women who are or have been incarcerated in the Buen Pastor Prison in Costa Rica. Over 90 percent of the women incarcerated there have more than three children. Providing for those children while they are behind bars can prove difficult, if not impossible. Their stories were chosen because they are representative of the profiles often seen in women incarcerated across the hemisphere.

Mother Behind Bars: Lidieth, a 45-year-old mother of four, says she was arrested for selling small quantities of crack and cocaine from her home in order to feed her family. Two of her adult children were implicated in the household business and sent to prison as well. Even from behind bars, she continues to care for her two youngest children, one of which she fears is being abused at home. She is currently serving a plea-bargained sentence of five years and four months.
Failed by the System: Sara, 50, fled her family at age 13 to escape sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle. With no education or opportunities, she became drug dependent and worked in the sex trade, and was eventually arrested for selling small quantities of crack to support her own consumption. Out of desperation, she attempted to bribe the police officer arresting her for selling drugs with the equivalent of US$3.75. She is currently serving a combined seven-year plea-bargained sentence for the two offenses.
Caught in a Vicious Cycle: Johanna, 31, grew up in a household where her parents sold drugs and was therefore exposed to the trade at a young age. When her mother was incarcerated and things got hard for her siblings, she agreed to carry a suitcase of drugs to Europe, but was instead forced to swallow 84 latex-wrapped cocaine packets, which almost killed her. She was sent to prison in Venezuela, but fell back into the trade upon release. She is currently serving a six-year, six-month sentence for selling marijuana.
Life After Prison: “J”, 28, is a single mother of six. She agreed to carry drugs into a prison to feed her family, but changed her mind at the last second and gave the drugs to prison guards. She was arrested and sentenced to over five years behind bars. J benefited from a change to the country’s drug law and was released after just four months, but her criminal record makes it nearly impossible to find work. She has no family support, no home, and no job. Her crime will remain on her record for the next ten years.

The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Dejusticia, and WOLA are working in collaboration with the OAS Inter-American Commission of Women, the Costa Rican Association for the Study and Intervention in Drugs (ACEID), and Corporación Humanas Colombia.

“This project aims to provide useful tools to policymakers seeking to promote more effective and humane policies for women incarcerated for low-level drug offenses,” said Marie Nougier, Senior Research and Communications Officer at IDPC. “We work to ensure that prison is used only as a last resort for vulnerable women involved in minor drug offenses, making use instead of interventions that seek to reduce the socio-economic and personal factors that led them to get involved in the drug trade in the first place.”


Jessamine Bartley-Matthews
Communications Officer, WOLA
+1 (202) 797-2171
[email protected]