WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Sergio Ortiz Borbolla/WOLA

3 Nov 2022 | Commentary

More Women Are Being Imprisoned. It’s Not Making the World Safer.

Around the world, the number of women behind bars continues to grow. The just-released fifth edition of the World Female Imprisonment List shows that the number of women and girls in detention world-wide increased by 60 percent since 2000, while that of men has risen by around 22 percent. The World Female Imprisonment List is part of the World Prison Brief, produced by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research.

The United States leads the world with more than 210,000 women in prison today, a steep increase from the 159,000 held behind bars in 2000. It also has the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s highest female prison population rate of about 64 women in prison per 100,000 in the national population. In contrast, Europe (excluding Russia) is the one area of the world where female imprisonment has decreased, falling about 13 percent during this time period and with a female prison population rate of just 6.9.

Latin America also fares poorly, with egregious statistics for some countries. Excluding the United States, an estimated 95,000 women are behind bars in the Americas today, compared to 37,671 in the year 2000, an increase of more than 150 percent in little over two decades. Brazil has among the highest numbers of incarcerated women in the world, coming in third after the U.S. and China, while Mexico is in tenth place. El Salvador has the world’s third highest female prison population rate, 42 out of 100,000 people; its female prison population has increased more than sevenfold over the past two decades. Guatemala’s has increased sixfold, and it is one of 17 jurisdictions around the world where women and girls account for more than 10 percent of the total prison population.

While the factors leading to women’s incarceration vary by country, in Latin America the continued rise in women’s incarceration is driven in large part by punitive drug laws and “mano dura” policies that disproportionately impact women. In most Latin American countries, drug-related offenses are the main cause of female incarceration and the percentage of women incarcerated for such offenses is almost always higher than that of men. Moreover, the profiles of women behind bars are remarkably similar: most are mothers, often single heads of household, who come from situations of vulnerability. In short, they are seeking to put food on the table for their families.

Behind these statistics are the tragic stories of women who are living in these prisons, in deplorable conditions, while neglected and abused.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the women’s prison in Bogota, Colombia, better know as “Buen Pastor”, where I was able to enter two cell blocks and talk freely with the women there. The first thing one notices walking into the patio of the cell block is wet laundry hanging everywhere, adding to an already humid climate. Mold is so rampant on the walls and ceilings, I wonder what damage it is doing to these women’s lungs. Water is only available on the first of the three floors that make up the block. The bathrooms are abysmal, with broken pipes and toilet seats.

The women I spoke with complained of the lack of access to basic necessities. I was told that each woman only gets two rolls of toilet paper, a deodorant, a toothbrush and paste, a razor and a bar of soap once every three months. I was shown receipts of the exorbitant cost of basic items that can be bought from the commissary, which also charges a 19 percent tax. Fees to use the telephones are also extremely high – if you can find one that works. Everyone complained that there is not enough food and that it is disgusting. That day, they may have received better food than normal given the delegation that was visiting; yet the “meat,” described to me as a “compressed product,” was truly revolting.

The women also talked about the lack of access to legal, health and mental health care services, as well as to educational and training opportunities. They also complained of verbal and physical mistreatment and abuse by prison personnel, and restrictions on visits by family and friends. Though other prisons in Colombia have lifted restrictions put into place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Buen Pastor prison still only allows visits once a month – though when I was there some women said that it had been more than a month since the last time they were allowed visitors. The vast majority of women I spoke with were mothers, and they miss their children more than anything.

In comparing “Buen Pastor” to other women’s prisons that I have visited in the region (all of which tend to be characterized by deplorable conditions) what struck me most was the extreme overcrowding. After Brazil, Colombia has more women in prison (6,746 as of July 2022) than any other country in South America. In the “Buen Pastor” prison, tiny cells with only a few feet between bunk beds for two people and the wall had four women sleeping in them. Slightly larger cells, also designed for two women, had as many as seven women crammed in. This means that many are sleeping on the floor – and not all have mattresses. There was even one room – clearly not intended to be a cell as it had no beds – shared by eleven women, all of whom had to sleep on the cement floor.

It does not need to be this way. There are immediate steps that governments can take to reduce prison overcrowding, beginning with the criminal legal system. As noted in a declaration by the international network of formerly incarcerated women, “pretrial detention should be the exception, not the rule; investigations and trials should be carried out in a timely and efficient manner; and there should be access to free and fair legal representation before and during the trial.” Women should have access to legal defense so that they can be released from prison when their time is up – numerous women in the “Buen Pastor” prison told me that they were eligible for conditional liberty or release, but they did not have a lawyer who could help navigate the bureaucratic process.

In addition, drug laws should be reformed to reduce overly punitive sentences, as well as the number of what are considered to be drug-related offenses. Under no circumstances should anyone be put in prison for possession of drugs for personal use. Incarcerating drug users does nothing to disrupt drug markets, but does have devastating consequences for those who come into conflict with the law and their families.

Better yet, governments should stop putting women behind bars in the first place. The UN “Bangkok Rules” provide guidance for the treatment of women in prison and the use of alternatives to incarceration. Yet in practice, governments rarely follow them. A new law in Colombia that allows for community service in lieu of prison sentences for women whose sentence is under eight years and live in situations of vulnerability could significantly reduce the female prison population in that country.

Other alternatives to incarceration include going to school or job training, which can provide women with the skills needed to obtain decent employment – and can also reduce recidivism. Ideally, these alternatives should be offered before women are funneled into the criminal legal system, so they are not branded with criminal records. Governments across the region must provide these women with the resources and opportunities needed to provide for their families and live with dignity. A world with a decreasing prison population is a better, and safer, world for all.