WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(C/o WOLA)

22 Aug 2019 | Commentary

Formerly Incarcerated Women in the Americas Connect in First-Ever Regional Workshop

Formerly incarcerated women from eight countries across the Americas are taking steps towards building a regional network to share experiences and push for policy reforms, in the face of a concerning, regionwide increase in incarceration rates that are disproportionately impacting women.

In the first-ever regional workshop to bring together formerly incarcerated women from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, and the United States, participants aimed to examine the situation of formerly incarcerated women in the Americas, identify the commonalities among them, and share strategies of organization and resistance, with the ultimate goal of building the foundations of a regional network of women from the Americas who have been in prison.

The workshop, titled “Women Resisting, Bringing Down Bars,” was organized by Corporacion Humanas Colombia, Free Women (Mujeres Libres, Colombia), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and took place in Bogota, Colombia, on July 17-18, 2019. Some 66 participants were involved, including 45 formerly incarcerated women, several family members, and representatives from other accompanying organizations.

The ample research and testimonies shared in the workshop provided stark evidence that criminal justice systems across the Americas are based on a culture of punishment which has been extremely detrimental to women, their families and their communities, while also failing to provide the resources and tools for women to rebuild their lives when leaving prison. Current incarceration policies criminalize poverty, violate women’s rights, and reinforce cycles of violence.

Being a woman is not a crime, being a migrant is not a crime, being poor is not a crime.
(Natacha, Mexico)

Shared experiences inside prisons

Based on their own personal experiences, formerly incarcerated women identified regionwide problems that women face in prison, including human right abuses, being subject to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and being exposed to sexual abuse and/or other forms of violence. Nor do they have access to legal aid and mechanisms to denounce violations.

Other regionwide problems identified by workshop participants included overcrowding and collective punishment. Incarcerated women lack access to gender-specific health care, medications, and resources to prevent suicide and self-harm. At the same time, many of them experience the use of medication as a mechanism of behavioral control by prison guards.

Another issue explored in the workshop was the increasing criminalization of abortion and reproductive choices in several countries in the region, including El Salvador and Ecuador (both of which have experienced recent increases in incarceration rates). Unjust to begin with, these laws are all too often applied to women who have experienced miscarriages or stillbirths.

Workshop participants also concurred that education and training programs provided in prison are woefully inadequate and do not prepare women to gain employment upon their release. At the same time, women deprived of liberty are also subjected to forced labor by enterprises that profit from their cheap labor by paying them sub-minimum wages. This, in turn, fosters incentives to lock people up for longer periods of time and drives longer sentencing policies. In addition, women face corruption inside prisons and many forms of resource deprivation, in particular, of food.

Upon their release, women are likely to suffer from discrimination due to social stereotypes and misguided perceptions that they have defied their “traditional” gender roles. Some are rejected by their families.

For me, what is inside the prison is the denigration of the human being. As a woman, all human rights are violated. There is no slightest respect for humanity, nor respect for human dignity.
(Paola, Chile)

Indeed, a commonality among incarcerated women across the Americas is the rupture of bonds with family members, friends, and the community—with devastating consequences, particularly for mothers and their children. Maternity inside prisons is particularly hard. More often than not, prenatal care is nonexistent. In some countries, body restraints such as shackles are used on pregnant women during transfers to hospitals, gynecological examinations, and during birth. Some countries allow newborns or children up until a certain age to remain in prison with their mothers; in others, mothers only get to spend a few months, or even hours or days, with their children.

Mothers struggle to rebuild their relationship with their children after being away from them for many years. In the United States, for example, there are reported cases in which incarcerated mothers have lost custody of children who are placed into foster care and then put up for adoption, as the mother is considered “absent” from their children’s lives.  There are other cases of prison authorities failing to take incarcerated mothers to family court appointments, or even notifying them that the court date was issued. In other countries, children may be placed in state institutions which may not meet their basic needs. In addition, when children go to visit their mothers in prison, women may not be allowed to touch them, which has severe consequences for their relationship.

Participants of the First Workshop of Women from the Americas who have been in Prison

Incarcerated women who are at higher risk

During the workshop, particular attention was paid to women belonging to groups at higher risk, including indigenous persons, LGBTIQ+, and foreign nationals. In particular, lesbians and trans women in prison are more exposed to sexual and other forms of violence. They face a double stigma—that of being a formerly incarcerated woman and also a member of the LGBTIQ+ community—and face high rates of abandonment by family members. As a punishment measure, lesbians are frequently transferred from one prison to the other, and they may be placed in areas with worse conditions than others.

Lesbian women pay three sentences: one for the crime, two for being women, and three for being part of the LGBTIQ+ community.
(Esperanza, Colombia)

Similarly, trans women face more gender-based violence and abuse by prison guards (overall, trans women in the Americas face such high risks for deadly violence that their average life expectancy is between 30 to 35). Trans women also face health care challenges: workshop participants spoke of incarcerated trans women having no other option for their transition process but to inject themselves with cooking oil, only to face a total lack of proper medical treatment. In addition, trans women are often placed in men’s prisons, which violates their identity rights and increases the risk of sexual violence. Their access to education, trainings, and other services are more limited, either because they are blocked from participating on the outrageous assumption that they “provoke” men, or because they are forced to undergo frequent prison transfers.

For migrant women serving a sentence away from home, it is a double sentence.
(Doris, Argentina)

Incarcerated foreign women and immigrants also face particular challenges. As they do not live in the country where they are detained, in many cases their family, social, and institutional ties are all severed, cutting them off from much-needed support systems. Sometimes, they don’t even speak the language of the country where they are and have difficulties dealing with unfamiliar criminal justice proceedings, both of which make it much more difficult to defend themselves in court.

Upon their release, these women may have an irregular migratory situation and risk deportation, even if they have established lives and families in the country. They face major difficulties in obtaining identification documents, and suffer from a lack of stable housing or job. All of this makes formerly incarcerated foreign women more vulnerable to human trafficking, and sexual and labor exploitation.

Common challenges women face when leaving prison 

Although many problems women face upon leaving prison are similar to those of men, the intensity and multiplicity of their post-release needs can be very different. The vast majority of prisons across the Americas lack effective programs to assist women in social reintegration following their release. For many women, getting out of prison is harder than getting in. Some of the economic, social, and legal difficulties they face include solitude and abandonment, discrimination and stigma, lack of psychological support, lack of necessary skills and education to seek employment, problems in getting identification documents, and in exercising civil rights like voting.

In most cases, women have difficulties in finding decent housing or formal employment, facing discrimination because of their criminal records. Compounding this problem, mothers are often unable to regain custody or live with their children again until they have adequate housing. Many women try to be self-employed or start a small business; however, they often lack the experience, resources, and funding to do it. Similarly, many of them face health problems because of the lack of appropriate medical treatment inside prisons. In short, incarceration perpetuates the cycle of poverty among women.

Imprisonment of women affects society more, because we have been the caregivers, and when women are imprisoned, children and the elderly are abandoned and left.
(Diana, Colombia)


Organizing experiences for and by formerly incarcerated women

Despite these challenges, formerly incarcerated women have created organizations to advocate for their rights, as well as the rights of those who are still deprived of liberty. During the workshop, activists discussed the work that they are doing with affected communities on the ground, to support women who have been or are in prison, and to end incarceration.

Activist groups that shared their experiences included:

  • The Argentinian feminist collective, Yo No Fui, founded in 2002, shared their experience working on artistic and entrepreneurial projects inside and outside women’s prisons.
  • Also from Argentina, the feminist collective Ni Una Migrante Menos advocates for migrant women who have been in prison.
  • From Brazil, the Frente Estadual de São Paulo pelo Desencarceramento discussed their 10-point strategy for combatting the structural violence of the penitentiary system.
  • The Mujer Levantate Foundation, founded in 2009, works inside a women’s prison in Santiago, Chile, providing support and advocacy services for an average of 100 women per year, impacting the lives of more than 300 children.
  • Mujeres Libres from Colombia, one of the regional workshop organizers, shared their experiences coordinating the first national workshop for formerly incarcerated Colombian women, which took place in June 2018.
  • Mujeres de Frente, a group born inside a women’s prison in Quito, Ecuador in 2004, runs a support network for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, family members, domestic workers, researchers, and children and adolescents affected by punitive policies.
  • El Salvador’s Tiempos Nuevos Teatro was established after the 1993 signing of the country’s peace accords; the organization focuses on education and community organizing for children, youth, women, and the elderly affected by incarceration.
  • From Mexico, Casa de las Muñecas Tiresias provides health services, vocational trainings, and accompaniment for people in vulnerable situations, including formerly incarcerated women, people in situations of homelessness, sex workers, members of the LGBTIQ+ community, people living with HIV, and drug users.
  • The U.S. National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women advocates for ending the incarceration of women and girls by shifting from a criminal legal system to one based on human justice. In the regional workshop, they shared their “Reimagining Communities” initiative, a community-led solution for addressing harm, closing and repurposing jails and prisons, reducing reliance on law enforcement, and using a transformative justice framework for addressing violence. In addition, they shared their participatory defense initiative, through which community members support people with ongoing criminal cases.
  • Brazilian organization Amparar shared their experiences in offering support and advocacy services for family members and friends of incarcerated people.
  • The Mexican Center for Integral Support of Family Members of People Deprived of Liberty (CAIFAM) works with people in conflict with the law, people deprived of liberty, family members, and people who face vulnerabilities in navigating the criminal justice system, including people with disabilities.
Imprisonment disrupts our families and our surroundings. The underlying reasons for violence will not be addressed by putting people in prison. We don’t understand these reasons if we continue throwing people into prisons and ignoring why people do things that cause harm to other people.
(Andrea, Unites States)

Final declaration presented by formerly incarcerated women

Working towards the future

During the workshop, formerly incarcerated women advocated for alternatives to incarceration and the need to change the current paradigms around incarceration. The recommendations they proposed include:

  • Promote alternative models of justice, such as restorative and transformative justice focused on victims and communities.
  • Address the root causes of why people commit crimes.
  • Reform drug policies and legalize abortion.
  • Ensure transparency of the justice system and accountability for criminal justice providers.
  • Provide access to trainings, education, and scholarships for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.
  • Promote opportunities for economic development, employment, and entrepreneurship.
  • Provide access to health services and mental health care.
  • Provide trainings for police officers and prison authorities from a human rights and gender perspectives.
  • Create and encourage spaces and networks of support for formerly incarcerated women.
  • Conduct programs to address gender-based violence.
  • Change narratives and discourses to end the stigma and discrimination around incarceration.

At the end of the two-day workshop, the formerly incarcerated women came together to present a final declaration that they had written collectively. In a powerful closing statement, 12 women representing different countries, backgrounds, and ages read their demands in their three languages.

The women advocated for building and investing in community-led solutions to empower formerly incarcerated women and girls, including members of the LGTIQ+ community; they highlighted the need to address the root causes of incarceration; they called on states across the Americas to respect their international human rights commitments and to create an independent ombudsman to oversee conditions in women’s prisons; they condemned the privatization of prisons and profiting from mass incarceration; and they called for ending the incarceration of girls and women around the world.

The workshop brought together women who live miles apart and yet who felt close connections because of their shared experiences inside and after prison. The participants said they felt empowered and inspired by these commonalities, which laid bare the broader failures of the criminal justice system across the Americas. By providing an opportunity for formerly incarcerated women to connect, debate, and advise one another, the regional workshop represented an important step towards creating a movement led by and for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women of the Americas.