Washington, D.C.—Women’s incarceration in Latin America has increased dramatically over the last two decades, and the number of women being put behind bars is growing much faster than the number of men. These trends cannot be explained by growth of the overall female population, or simply by the increase in the total number of prisoners. Rather, the driving force behind the data is the adoption of punitive drug laws that disproportionately affect women.
WOLA’s new report, Women Behind Bars for Drug Offenses in Latin America: What the Numbers Make Clear, provides the most recent data on women’s incarceration in Latin America. WOLA’s research reveals that in the majority of Latin American countries, drug-related crimes are the main cause of female incarceration. While in sheer numbers, more men than women are incarcerated for drug-related offenses in Latin America, the percentage of women imprisoned for that offense is almost always higher than the percentage of men.
For example, data compiled by WOLA shows that in Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru, the proportion of women prisoners who are incarcerated for drug offenses is at least 30 percent higher than in the case of men imprisoned in those countries. The excessive use of pretrial detention is a primary factor contributing to this trend, as research shows that more women than men are in pretrial detention for drug offenses in almost all of the countries studied.
The incarceration of these women does not disrupt the drug trade, as they are primarily engaged in high-risk but low-ranking jobs and are easily replaced, while those running criminal enterprises rarely end up behind bars. Yet the consequences of incarceration for these women, their families and their communities can be devastating. The COVID-19 pandemic—and its disproportionate impact on people in prison—gives even greater urgency to implementing reforms to dramatically reduce the number of women behind bars. “It is time to fundamentally rethink who is put behind bars and for what reasons. Rather than pour more money into prisons, governments should be investing in communities and in programs that promote gender equality and socioeconomic justice,” said WOLA Coletta Youngers, a co-author of the report.