WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas


8 Apr 2020 | Commentary

COVID-19: A Potential Death Sentence for Women Behind Bars in Latin America

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a serious health and economic threat to communities around the world and governments should make saving lives their number one priority. However, for certain populations who are at greater risk from the disease—including those in detention centers or prisons in Latin America—much more needs to be done. Prison conditions in Latin America are alarming: there is extreme overcrowding, dilapidated infrastructure, and appallingly inadequate sanitary conditions and health care services. As COVID-19 spreads to and within prisons, incarcerated individuals are facing grave and possibly deadly health concerns. The concerns are even more pressing for women, the vast majority of whom are imprisoned for low-level offenses and many of whom are in pretrial detention

Some countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia have undertaken important actions to reduce prison populations. However, as the virus spreads, “decarceration” efforts need to move much more quickly and in every country in the region, and they need to factor in the needs of incarcerated women. Immediate action is needed now to dramatically reduce the region’s prison population in order to prevent a huge toll in illness and deaths.

Through our work on women, drug policy and incarceration—carried out in collaboration with the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and partners across the region—we have documented the rapid rise in the female prison population in Latin America and the disproportionate consequences of punitive drug policies on women, their children, families, and communities. Collectively, we have developed and disseminated policy recommendations to reduce the number of women in prison in Latin America and the Caribbean. The policy recommendations detailed below draw on this previous work—as well as statements by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

It’s critical that governments across the region undertake the following actions to protect the lives of women who are now behind bars and to prevent prison populations from swelling even further as COVID-19 continues to spread.

1) Implement immediate action to release those women who meet one or more of the following criteria. Such release could be via alternatives to incarceration, pardons, sentence reductions or other means in line with a country’s legal and judicial systems. (International law dictates that such actions cannot apply to those accused of crimes against humanity.)

  • Women who are over 60 years of age and/or have disabilities, HIV, immunodeficiency, tuberculosis, or other chronic diseases, or other underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk. 
  • Women who are pregnant or nursing, have children living with them in prison, or have minor children or elderly parents or family members with disabilities who need their care. 
  • Women who are in pretrial detention (unless they meet the conditions for exceptional cases as laid out by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights).
  • Women who are in prison for non-violent offenses, including drug offenses.
  • Women who are nearing the end of their sentence (as permitted in national legislation).
  • Trans women who are at heightened risk of experiencing inhumane and unsafe incarceration conditions.

2) Avoid putting more women behind bars. Judicial and law enforcement officials should suspend new arrests or detentions for non-violent offenses and for those women who meet one or more of the criteria elaborated above. Those detained for violations of curfews or other restrictions put in place to attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 should not be put in detention centers; only proportionate administrative sanctions should be applied.

3) For those women who remain in prison, governments should:

  • Guarantee access to family members and friends through free phone calls or video conferences. If those on the outside are no longer able to bring in food or personal hygiene items for those on the inside, governments have the obligation to ensure an adequate supply of those products in order to meet all people deprived of liberty basic needs.
  • Make available testing for COVID-19 to those who present symptoms or have been in contact with someone who’s contracted the disease; those who need medical treatment should be transferred to a hospital or health care facility where they can get professional care.
  • Improve sanitary conditions, including the provision of adequate supplies of soap and water, and ensure an adequate supply of menstrual hygiene products. 
  • Provide personal protective equipment to all who need it, including all healthcare staff.

4) For those women who have been released from prison, governments should support their social reinsertion by guaranteeing at least the following:¹

  • Screening for COVID-19  for those who present symptoms or have been in contact with someone who’s contracted the disease and the provision of appropriate health care services, as needed.
  • A secure form of transportation home or to a halfway house. 
  • Immediate provision of official identification documents.

Under no circumstances, women should return to a living situation where they are at risk of any form of violence or abuse. Governments should develop appropriate programs for those at risk of abuse or domestic violence, including shelters, counseling and social services. In addition, governments should provide support for social reinsertion that includes assistance in finding housing, employment, childcare support, and healthcare. 

In a March 25 speech on COVID-19, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, highlighted that “governments are facing huge demands on resources in this crisis and are having to take difficult decisions. But I urge them not to forget those behind bars, or those confined in places such as closed mental health facilities, nursing homes and orphanages because the consequences of neglecting them are potentially catastrophic. Governments across the region are slow in responding to her call, which is having grave consequences for women. It’s time Latin American governments stepped up. 

See some of WOLA’s work on the Women, Drug Policies and Incarceration Program:

  • A report highlights comprehensive public policies to guarantee the promotion and protection of the rights of an often-overlooked population: trans women behind bars.
  • A brief on pretrial detention in Latin America issues a series of recommendations to reduce the number of women in pretrial detention.
  • A guide for policy reform offers a roadmap for officials and advocates for implementing policy changes that could benefit the thousands of women incarcerated on drug charges across the Americas.

[1] Ángela Guerrero (Centro de Estudios y Acción por la Justicia) y Carolina Villagra (Psychology Department, University of Chile) Incarcerated Women and COVID-19 (2020), https://www.scribd.com/document/454668189/Mujeres-Encarceladas-y-COVID