WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
25 Jul 2022 | Commentary

The Invisible Resistance to Latin America’s Prison Systems

The first time Patricia Tévez went to the district prosecutor’s office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to demand that the system do something to protect her husband, who was being tortured and beaten inside a prison, she felt lost and alone. With her two young children beside her, she was left standing in the office with no support and no idea as to what to do next. What she did know is that if she didn’t do something, her husband could be killed. The authorities told her everything was fine. 

It was then that Patricia met Andrea Casamento, the mother of a young man who had been in a very similar situation. She had received calls from her son, who was being held in the Penitentiary Center of Ezeiza, a department 20 kilometers south of the country’s capital, saying that all he had to wear was underwear, and that he had gone many hours without eating. He told her that if he didn’t find a way out of prison soon, he would take his own life. 

Patricia remembers the feeling well: “Our family members tell us ‘go to the Ombudsman’s office, say this or that’ but they explain things to us using words that we don’t understand. Family members aren’t lawyers. It’s because of this that family members don’t go, don’t ask, and don’t claim their rights.”

Andrea and Patricia have faced the reality of thousands of women whose relatives are in prison: coming face to face with an intricate maze of institutions, mechanisms, and vulnerabilities that systematically violate the rights of their loved ones, as well as their own. 

“The narrative of human rights surrounding prison systems across Latin America has largely been centered on those on the inside of the bars,” explains WOLA Senior Fellow, Coletta Youngers. “But we also need to take into account, from a gender perspective, who is left behind when people are detained and how their lives change virtually overnight.”

Women make up the majority of people who care for those in prisons across Latin America. They are often responsible for securing food, medicines and other essential needs States fail to provide. They suffer from abusive searches and other forms of violence when visiting their loved ones behind bars.

This is remarkably different when we look at women who themselves are detained. Patricia paints a stark comparison: “You go to the women’s prisons and you see that very few women are visited by their husbands. But for the male prisons, the lines are never-ending with mothers, grandmothers, sisters and wives that take care of their homes on top of taking care of the men. To make sure the groceries are enough, that the men receive medicine, take care of the chores, the paperwork, etc. We women take care of everything.”

But who takes care of the women? 

This is where ACIFAD comes in. 

The Civil Association of Families of Individuals Detained in Federal Prisons (Asociación Civil para Familiares de Detenidos en Cárceles Federales, ACIFAD) is an organization made up of people including relatives of people in prison, psychologists, sociologists, lawyers and anthropologists. This intersectionality creates a comprehensive approach to support, accompany, and advocate for the rights of family members and their loved ones deprived of their liberty. 

The organization provides emergency response services with a hotline where family members can call to ask questions about how to deal with a specific case, who to reach out to, or simply to share a concern. The hotline also receives calls directly from people in prison that want to denounce violence or the conditions they’re kept in. The hotline is a key way to document and report continuous human rights violations.

Patricia recalls that when the COVID-19 pandemic began “the calls and the messages started pouring in. I started to feel desperate and I called Andrea because I couldn’t do it anymore…Now we are multiple organizations united to support this process to denounce [violations].”

Beyond these services, ACIFAD also dives deeper into advocacy and research to raise awareness on the situation of family members, prison conditions, and the challenges of social reintegration. 

The Three Stages of Incarceration

Relatives of people deprived of their liberty describe three stages they go through when a family member is detained: the detention itself, the sentence, and when their loved one comes out of prison. They say part of the problem is that they usually experience each without any kind of support from the State.

The period that comes straight after detention is marked by severe uncertainty and anxiety as family members lack any information on what is happening to their loved ones, like they’re thrown into an abyss. 

Mabel, the mother of a young man who was sentenced in 2018, describes it well: 

“The prosecutor told me ‘go and investigate who did the robbery and I’ll make sure they release your son.’ I did that, I trusted blindly in the words of the prosecutor… When I got to the police station, nobody would talk to me or explain anything to me. Whatever my son and I said didn’t matter.”

The next stage is when the sentence is handed over—which sometimes can take several years and drain relatives’ energy and resources.

“That is a major blow,” Patricia says. “You go in extremely nervous and anxious, and then, when you hear that they’ve sentenced your family member to 20, 25 years, it’s a horrible experience, a horrible emptiness… it was being in ACIFAD that allowed me not to fall.”

Andrea shares similar emotions: “Once the moment of the sentencing comes, you feel a kind of relief deep down. Because you know now what is coming and you can organize your life a little more again. At first, you don’t know what to do, you’re just starting to understand—but then, it’s different. And if you don’t prepare yourself, you’re just going to be afraid, afraid to enter a door that is inviting you to enter, but to never come out.”

Knowing what she now knows, Mabel says her son’s story could have turned out differently: “I was manipulated [by the system] due to my own legal ignorance.”

But still, she continues to do whatever she can to support her son and her family. “I fight for my son, for both of my sons and for my parents. I remember my son all the time… I worry, I know someone can hurt him and that his life there is uncertain. It’s horrible.”

Once their loved ones leave prison, other major challenges abound. In Andrea’s case, she had to support her husband (who was still in prison when they met) after his release. Despite being an adult at the time he received his sentence, the conditions he experienced inside severely hindered his capacity to carry on with his life and reintegrate into society successfully. Because of this, Andrea had to continue to be the main caregiver and provider for her family on top of assisting her husband through this major transition period without any support—a responsibility family members should not carry. 

Andrea, who now has experienced the release of both her son and her husband, explains: “The incarceration process isn’t erased once our loved ones get out, it stays on your body, like a scar.”

Tuesdays, 5pm

The work, in many ways, begins from the moment family members meet one another. It often starts with a call to ACIFAD’s emergency hotline: A family member denounces violence against their loved one or the abysmal conditions they face, or they call with a simple question that has gone unheeded yet again by the State. Then, they realize the people on the other end of the line once faced the same situation. 

On the 4th floor of an old school building in the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires, close to a dozen women trekk in once the clock chimes 5 p.m. for ACIFAD’s weekly Tuesday meetings. Here is where a bond like no other is created. Mothers, sisters, daughters and wives gather to talk, give or receive a shoulder to cry on, or to simply sit in solidarity together. Some have had their loved ones die while in prison, but they still show up to do whatever they can to support other women. They’re accompanied by others who provide legal advice and help them develop resistance strategies to face what is sure to be an onslaught of violations against their rights and the rights of their loved ones. Lawyers and psychologists are often present to provide support to the emergency hotline, or anthropologists that document their experiences in the hopes of inciting policy change and preventing situations like these in the long run. 

ACIFAD was born from the accompaniment between women who had a loved one ripped away by the penitentiary system in Argentina—and they found solace in a space where few others would understand how deeply incarceration impacts a family. 

For nearly 15 years, the organization has held these meetings. There could be twelve women or as many as 30 or as little as 2, but the Tuesday meetings are non-negotiable. These are a place of deep vulnerability, but also a deep understanding. This simple act allows family members to feel that they are not alone.

ACIFAD not only provides emotional and mental support for family members—it also empowers them to become activists in their own right. Women learn how to use the tools at their disposal to reach others and teach them how to put in a complaint or support their family. The organization itself serves as a resistance mechanism to confront the different stages of the criminal legal process. 

A regional phenomenon

Argentina and ACIFAD are not alone in this crisis.

Andrea, Patricia and Mabel’s experiences are remarkably similar to women in other countries. The Argentine organization is part of a larger network known as the International Network of Women Relatives of Persons Deprived of Liberty (RIMUF), which includes women-led organizations from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico and Spain. By establishing links between countries, one of the objectives of the network is to make visible the impact of incarceration on families, especially on the lives of female relatives, showing how this impact is experienced in the same way across the region.

The women of the network tell eerily similar experiences: from the moment their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers or fathers were detained, their lives changed instantly. They face hostile, violent and arbitrary systems that perpetrate grave human rights violations. In most instances, family members receive little to no information on the case status or how their loved one is doing until they are able to visit them on the inside, which is another hurdle riddled with difficulties. 

The impact of incarceration goes beyond the bars for them. Family members are left to figure out how to manage their homes and their families, and how to continue with their lives while also supporting their family on the inside. The network estimates that for every person detained, at least 5 of their family members are directly impacted (including 2 to 3 children).  They are often the last person on their own long list of priorities despite the immense stress and trauma they endure. 

But this doesn’t change the fact that while the vast majority of the prison population is male, it is women who provide the basic necessities that their family members in prison need to have their minimal needs met. They’re often the invisible resistance to Latin America’s prison systems.

After caring for her son in prison for more than 4 years, Mabel agrees, “you could say ‘God made women to take care of those detained.’”

But the significance of the role of these women highlights the failure of the State to fully care for those it incarcerates, and its complacency in the continuous violation of the rights of those in prison and their family members. 

The way forward 

Family members experience a kind of violence that is invisible and institutionalized by prison systems across the region. They are put into extreme positions of vulnerability when they are forced to become the caretakers for their family members inside and outside, when they are shut out of the legal system and left with no recourse to defend their loved ones or themselves, and when they are forced to carry the stigma of prison wherever they go. 

That is why governments must implement and guarantee safeguards that protect the rights of family members of people in prison, as well as those deprived of their liberty. WOLA therefore recommends that States: 

  • Create a framework for the rights of people with family members in prison by providing information about the processes regarding detention, sentencing, and procedures while the person is deprived of their liberty. 
  • Provide support to the families of people deprived of their liberty to ease the burden of the main caretakers, which are predominantly women. 
  • Provide the basic and necessary resources for people during their term of detention including but not limited to access to proper nutrition, clothing, mental and physical health services, and education resources. 
  • Guarantee practices and resources that allow for the successful reintegration of people once released. 
  • Above all, consider alternatives to incarceration that prevent the detention of people with dependent family members in the first place. 

“We all get to ACIFAD crying, asking for help and waiting for other people to solve our problems. But from the most brutal honesty, we have learned that we don’t want anyone to live through these painful moments. We don’t want others to go through this. Similarly to what happened with the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, we will continue to raise our voice for our sons and for the sons of all of us, building a path for everyone,” reflects Andrea.