Imprisoning Women for Small-Scale Drug Offenses: A Disproportionate and Cruel Response

By Luciana Pol, senior fellow on security policy and human rights at the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), an Argentine human rights organization and think-tank founded in 1979.

In Latin America today, more and more women are being incarcerated for the commission of small-scale drug crimes. The implications for the women involved, their families and society at large are both profound and disturbing.

This increase in female incarceration may be in part reflective of the fact that more women have become involved in drugs-related activities. However, primarily and fundamentally, these incarceration rates reveal the impact of the so-called War on Drugs, as waged throughout the Americas for the last four decades. Despite the endless parade of helicopters, radar systems and weapons wielded by police and military patrols—by land and by sea—this “war” has not reduced trade in illicit substances. Despite claims to the contrary by fear-mongering politicians the mass incarceration of small-time dealers and users has had similarly negligible effects on overall trade.

How do women fit into this scenario? A joint study co-authored by CELS in 2011 showed that nearly 7 of every 10 women in Argentina’s federal prisons had been convicted of drugs-related crimes. These crimes predominantly relate to micro-trafficking but a minority include the small scale sale of drugs. That figure was even higher amongst foreign women, 90 percent of whom were jailed for drug offenses.  Most of these women were from other Latin American countries.

The total female prison population in Latin America nearly doubled between 2006 and 2011—rising from 40,000 to more than 74,000—according to an article by Corina Giacomello.

Analysing the Latin American context, we can observe that this increase in incarceration is related to the prosecution of drug-related micro-trafficking crimes. Drug policies built on the current prohibitionist regime have resulted in the promotion of repressive security measures focused on reducing the supply of drugs. These efforts have been dismissive of a more preventive approach towards consumption. On top of the lack of effectiveness, this policy has shown its worst side with marginalised populations.

The women who get involved in selling or transporting drugs often do so as a means of securing a livelihood. In many cases, they are the heads of single-family households and must provide for their children or other relatives. According to the survey of imprisoned women in Argentina, 63% of those polled were the heads of household, and a full 86% were mothers. Only about a third of them had finished secondary school. For these women micro-trafficking is an act of necessity.

Because women occupy a central role in terms of family cohesion, their imprisonment often leads to a break-up of the family unit and to their own isolation. This impact is worsened if they lose contact with their children, who may go to live with relatives or be sent to orphanages or foster homes. This is another punishment—on top of the original sanction—the effects of which transcend the individuals involved.

In Argentina, children under 4 years of age are “allowed” to live with their mothers in prison. However, it goes without saying that a jail cell is no place to raise a child, whose physical, mental and emotional development can be harmed irrevocably.

In addition, beyond the fact that they are deprived of their liberty and detained in overcrowded or improvised facilities, these women often suffer episodes of violence while in prison. This includes vaginal and anal searches, despite the fact that these practices are banned under international law, and can extend to instances of rape. In the survey mentioned previously, 69% of respondents said they had witnessed or suffered violence during their incarceration.

It should be clear, then, that there is a grave disproportion between the punishments meted out and the harm caused by the crimes these women have committed. The majority of female prisoners are convicted of non-violent crimes and are first-time offenders.

We at CELS, along with a host of other human rights organizations, are fighting for a paradigm shift in drugs and security policies. These policies must be reoriented to respect human rights and reduce violence. The War on Drugs has already taken tens of thousands of lives and, at least in Latin America, revived practices of torture and enforced disappearances.

There must be an end to the militarization, the incessant rise in incarceration rates, the criminalization of growers and consumers, and the feeble public health policies that do little to prevent drug abuse or help addicts recover. These policies have been ill-conceived, ineffective and cruel in their consequences.

New, more humane policies must include a gender perspective, recognizing the broader social implications of incarcerating poor women for non-violent crimes when they are often the breadwinners and caretakers that hold families together.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

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