WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
17 Aug 2015 | Commentary | News

Workshop on Mass Incarceration of Women Across the Americas

On July 16, 2015, WOLA and the Open Society Foundations (OSF) convened a Workshop on the Mass Incarceration of Women Across the Americas, bringing together experts and advocates from Latin America and the United States. At the workshop, which was the first of its kind, participants shared experiences, information, and analysis on policies that result in the mass incarceration of women for low-level drug offenses.

Women across the Americas are being incarcerated for minor, non-violent, drug-related crimes at an alarming rate. Research shows that in Argentina, Brazil and Costa Rica, more than 60 percent of the female prison population is there for drug offenses. In the case of Ecuador, it is more than 80 percent. The vast majority of these women have children and many are single parents. The incarceration of mothers and caregivers in particular can have devastating consequences for themselves, their families, and their communities.

The workshop sought to build bridges between U.S. and Latin American activists and explore options for joint advocacy efforts, with a particular focus on the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, which will take place in April 2016.

A geographically and racially diverse group of advocates and litigators attended from the United States, including two formerly incarcerated women whose personal experiences illustrated the devastating impact on women of unjust drug laws. They were joined by drug policy experts and activists from Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, who shared their perspectives on the application of harsh drug laws exported from the United States to Latin American countries.

The sharing of experiences and knowledge across borders brought powerful new understandings and focus for advocacy. U.S. participants came to see mass incarceration as a global problem.  Latin American participants saw the need to build a diverse grassroots reform network that includes those who have been incarcerated. By the end of the day, it was evident to all participants that grassroots and national-level advocacy campaigns should be undertaken collaboratively, across international borders.

Workshop participants agreed that next April’s UNGASS meetings should be seen as a springboard and an organizing tool that will lead to more productive advocacy.  Although changing official government policies through UNGASS is highly unlikely, the high-level meeting provides an important space for public education and advocacy.

As one participant noted, UNGASS offers “an incredible opportunity to organize across borders as women and to bring issues of women to the forefront” of the international drug policy debate. She also underscored the need to ensure that women have a significant presence at the events leading up to and at UNGASS, including formerly incarcerated women, drug users and cultivators.

To date, gender-related issues have received little attention in the UN drug policy debates. In fact, over the years, only two resolutions that deal with women and drug policy have been approved at the annual meetings of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). The issues related to the incarceration of women and men have long been considered identical, when in reality women, and particularly mothers, face a range of unique circumstances when entering the criminal justice system. Consequently, specific reforms addressing the detention, sentencing, and incarceration of women must be put forward.

From a grassroots perspective, the workshop developed an understanding for both the Latin American and U.S. advocates that hearing and raising the voices of women who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated is imperative in the fight for reform. Women must tell their stories not only so that other women can see and learn from past mistakes, but also more importantly, to humanize policy debates regarding sentencing and prison reform.

One of the conference participants, a formerly incarcerated woman in the United States, discussed the devastating impact of incarceration and the need to bring to light the negative health effects, the stress, and the “heaviness in the air if you are living in prison and you are a women and a mother.”

Conference participants concluded that the excessively harsh drug laws in force across the hemisphere today are often extremely detrimental, pushing people deeper into poverty and destroying families. They also emphasized that no woman who is pregnant or the mother of a minor should go to prison for drug offenses; alternatives to incarceration should be implemented instead.

In addition to building new relationships among experts working on the problem of mass incarcerations in the Americas and providing a new international focus for advocacy, the workshop provided new insights and impetus for a policy guide that is being developed to help implement reforms related to women, drug policy and incarceration.  This guide is part of a larger project being carried out by WOLA, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), and Dejusticia (Colombia), in collaboration with the OAS’s Inter-American Commission of Women, Costa Rican Association for the Study and Intervention in Drugs (ACEID, Costa Rica) and Corporación Humanas (Colombia). The guide will be released in late 2015 with the goal of reducing the mass incarceration of women on drug offenses.

The success of this workshop and the energies it generated for future work illustrates that changing policy surrounding women and incarceration is not an individual or a national movement for reform. Instead it is an international, collaborative effort to create positive change. As one participant concluded, “Our efforts are part of a bigger movement for social, political and economic justice.”

*Caroline Buhse was a Summer 2015 intern at WOLA, and Coletta Youngers is a Senior Fellow.