Prisons are most governments’ tool of choice in the context of the war on drugs and marginalized women, cheap labour for crime organizations. While governments in countries such as El Salvador insist on prison being the best strategy to tackle crime, others are trying new approaches, many which don’t include spending time behind bars. Coletta Youngers takes us through the past, present and potential future of this crisis.

Text: Josefina Salomón / Editing: Madeleine Penman / Ilustración: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

Marginalized women make up for the fastest- growing prison population in Latin America, most held on non-violent drug trafficking charges. 

Coletta Youngers, an expert on incarceration who has spent years visiting prisons across Latin America and building a movement with formerly incarcerated women, says prisons have not only failed to make a dent on the drug trade but further marginalized already vulnerable communities.

We spoke with her about the current state of prisons across Latin America and what the most promising justice models are. 

In.Visibles (IV): How would you describe the prison situation in Latin America today, particularly for women?
Coletta Youngers (CY): If you look at the data, even though there’s a lot more men in prison than women, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses is much higher than that of men in most Latin American countries – anywhere from 40 to 60, even 80 percent, when for men it tends to be between 20 to 30 percent. Also, the rate of women’s incarceration is growing at a much higher speed than that of men. 

IV: Why are women disproportionally affected by drug policies? 

CY: There are multiple factors. One is that many of these women are single mothers, they have family responsibilities and they come from situations of vulnerability, of poverty. And so, often, women become engaged in the lowest aspects of the drug trade to put food on the table. It’s often a way to combine the need to earn an income with their child-rearing responsibilities. So maybe you’re selling drugs out of your house so you can also be taking care of your kids, or maybe a couple of times a month you are transporting drugs, as you don’t need full-time childcare if you’re doing that. 

Women are exposed in ways that aren’t necessarily the case for those higher up in the drug trade. Which isn’t to say that men aren’t also in those situations, but I think that the economic situation of women pushes them into circumstances in a way that we need to take into account.

There’s also a lot of discussion about whether judges hand down harsher sentences for women. There is some evidence we found that women tend to be given longer prison sentences than men for similar crimes, and I think that is very much because of discrimination and stigma. Women who become involved in illicit activities are seen as having defied society’s expectations of them as caregivers.

IV: There seems to be more information than ever on the impact of prison on marginalized groups, particularly women, yet the number of women incarcerated continues to grow…

CY: Yes. The U.S. is the perfect example of continuing to implement very bad policies despite the fact that we know they’re not working. If you look at the drug war, it’s astounding. You can go all the way back to the early 1900s, but if you just take a look from when Nixon launched the “war on drugs” over 50 years ago, you can see that not only have we not made a dent in the drug trade but, on the contrary, it’s multiplied. 

The drug trade has expanded exponentially in Latin America since the U.S. began promoting these policies. Drug use and drug related violence has expanded. I don’t have a good answer to why we keep doing the same thing over and over without seeing that we’re not getting the results that we want, but I think that there are a couple of factors. One is that, particularly in the case of the United States, we’ve invested so many resources in the war on drugs that it’s now hard for politicians to say “Ups, we were wrong, this was a colossal waste of billions of dollars.” And second, I think that it’s easy at a certain level to put people in prison. The US, in particular, has long dealt with deep rooted issues in society by incarcerating people. And it’s much easier to put somebody behind bars and, essentially, throw away the key than it is to look at the deep-rooted socioeconomic problems that have impacted poor communities and particularly communities of colour in this country in such negative ways. 

In the case of Latin America, there’s this tension between recognizing these issues and the problems of citizen insecurity that plague the region. And we know that there are very real problems of violence and crime and people feeling insecure in their communities. And again, it’s much easier for governments to implement what are called “mano dura” or hardline policies that are based on the idea that the more people you lock up, the safer you will be. But we’ve seen time and time again that this is not necessarily the case and it may have immediate repercussions, but it’s not going to solve the problem in the medium to long term. 

IV: Have there ever been any serious debates on alternatives to using prisons as the main tool in the “war on drugs”?

CY: Well, certainly we have in this country (the United States). We’ve had a debate on criminal legal systems for some years now. During the Obama administration there was a recognition that the U.S. was spending a huge amount of money on maintaining the prison industrial complex. First of all, it was tying up resources that could be used for other alternatives and weren’t having the desired impact. But again, what happens when you actually get reforms is that they turn out much more limited than actually addressing the root causes of the problem. So, we have the Second Chances Act that was re-authorized, under the Trump administration, which allows a small number of mostly white people to get out of prison early and provide some opportunities for “second chances.” But, in general, these reforms have been Band-Aids as opposed to thinking about how you really address significantly reducing prison population. To do this, the first thing you must do is change the laws because we have so many laws that put people in prison that shouldn’t be there, for example due to some traffic infractions.

And then thinking about what are the alternatives for people who have committed a transgression, what are the ways in which they can rectify that? I think we need to think about it not just in terms of community service or some alternative to incarceration where you’re paying back your debt to society, but thinking about community services: what kinds of educational opportunities can the government provide? Employment opportunities, drug treatment services if women want those, etc.

Ways that will allow women to better their situations, so they don’t end up back in prison. We all know that most people who go to prison will end up back there at some point because they come out and they have criminal records. They’re in an even worse situation. They can’t get jobs. And who’s waiting to give them a job? It’s the drug trafficker. I can’t tell you how many women have said to me, “I got out of prison. I’m really trying to get my life back on track. I’m trying to get my children back. I can’t find a job anywhere. I can’t find a place to live. But the people who are constantly coming up to me are the guys that run the drug trade in my neighbourhood. And they’re saying: ‘we’ve got your back. If you need help, come to us. We’ll employ you.’ “And so you end back up in the same thing. We have to break these cycles that result in some people ending up in this vicious cycle of going in and out of prison.

The United States is the perfect example of how bad policies continue to be implemented even when we know they don't work.

IV: Some countries in Latin America have been experimenting with alternatives to prison. Colombia, for example, with house arrest, and Mexico with electronic monitoring. 

CY: First of all, I think it’s worth saying that sadly we don’t have many good examples of alternatives to incarceration. I think there are other parts of the world, Europe in particular, where we can look to potential models that might be applicable to countries in Latin America. And I think we also need to recognize that a lot of what’s put forward as alternatives to incarceration aren’t very good alternatives. Electronic monitoring, for example, is a horrible alternative to incarceration. It just incarcerates people in a different way. Obviously, if you’re in prison and the alternative is to get out with an ankle bracelet, an ankle shackling, as it’s called by many of my colleagues here in the United States, you’re going to want to get out of prison. But then you face so many difficulties and restrictions of what you can do with that electronic monitor around your ankle. I mean, this is a much deeper discussion than what we can have right now. The other issue is house arrest. Again, you might be better off in your house than in prison. Although many women I have talked to have said, “well, at least in prison, they gave me something to eat, even if it was horrible.”

If you’re locked up in your house 24/7, you can’t fulfil your responsibilities. But we must think about these things in different ways. So, for example, in Argentina, the law of mandating house arrest doesn’t state that you have to have all of these restrictions. Judges impose them, so you could think about a very loose regime of house arrest where you are allowed to be out most of the day, to have a job and to take your kids to school. This is changing from the mentality of punishment to asking how we provide people with the tools they need to get their lives on track. 

One of the first countries that really pioneered trying to think about this was Costa Rica, which implemented a series of initiatives. First, they passed a law or revised a law that allowed for women who smuggled drugs into prison, which they found was one of the main causes of women’s incarceration, to have their sentences reduced to three years or below, and that dramatically reduced the prison population.

Then they set up what was a one-stop-shop for women getting out of prison where they could access services. And so, they could go to this one place and they could go to one government agency and get help with housing, reuniting with their children and employment. The other really important thing that Costa Rica did was passing a law that basically allows judges to eliminate the criminal records of men and women coming out of prison who committed the transgression when they were in situations of poverty, recognizing that this is one of the most significant impediments to people being able to reconstruct their lives coming out of prison. 

I think the most interesting example in Latin America today is Colombia. Colombia has passed a law that basically says that women heads of households who committed a transgression when they were in a situation of poverty or vulnerability or marginalization, can be given community service instead of going to prison. Although the government is now struggling with implementation, this law could result in about half of the female prison population being let out of prison. There’s a lot of improvements that can be made to it, but I think it’ll be really exciting once it gets it off the ground to see how it works and how we might think about proposing this in other countries. 

The key is to think about how to reduce the prison population because it’s much easier to think about alternatives to incarceration for 300 women rather than for 3,000. Thinking about why we put people in prison is very important and low-level drug offences is a perfect example.  

IV: What you’re saying is that prison does not act as a deterrent to many of these crimes the way it was supposedly meant to…

CY: Yes, that’s one thing we know from studies in the United States. Before they commit a crime, people don’t think “Oh, am I going to get three years for this or seven years? Or could I actually get a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense?” That’s not how people operate. Long sentences are not a prison deterrent at all. I think most people, they might recognize the risk, but you don’t think… It’s a gamble, right? So prison is not a deterrent at all, in my opinion. 

IV: Some countries, particularly in Scandinavia, seem to have found a successful formula to keep both prison population numbers and crime rates low but the argument is that those countries have access to many more resources than, for example, countries in Latin America. Are those models exportable to countries with fewer resources?

CY: I think both issues are very real. But I think in terms of resources, if you could imagine a situation in Latin America where you dramatically reduce your prison population, as is the case of in Norway, then you could think about how to invest those resources in a different way, setting up programmes, for example.  

I’ve never visited prisons in Norway, but I’ve seen the videos and the pictures, and they’re like apartments and you’re free to walk around, to leave and come back. It’s just a whole different idea of what it means to promote justice and this is something Latin America could also think about in different ways. 

The issue of societal support is, I think, a huge impediment. I think that certain sectors of society, often governments, mainstream media, have been extremely effective at continuing to work to promote this idea that hardline policies and locking people up in prison are  going to solve whatever problem you’re thinking about at the time. And it’s hard for people to think about alternatives and to think that maybe it isn’t the case that if all these people are locked up, I’m going to feel more secure.

IV: I can see this is particularly difficult when countries that applied hardline policies, such as El Salvador, have lowered crime rates…

CY:  I think what’s going on in El Salvador is frightening, scary, horrific, not just for El Salvador, but for the region.  I’m not an expert in El Salvador, so I don’t want to say more or go beyond what I can say  as an expert more broadly. But I think there are a lot of questions about the medium to long term sustainability of this approach. I think the idea that is permeating other Latin American countries that this is an approach we should follow is very scary, and I’m very worried about how as violence increases in countries like Ecuador, this is a much easier model to sell than, as I was saying, more of an approach of community-based responses.

IV: Finally, what would a future without prisons or at least without the current prison system actually look like?
CY: This is something I’ve thought a lot about because as a human rights activist, I’ve worked for many years documenting atrocities with a commitment to putting people who carry out such atrocities in prison. So when I first started thinking about prison abolition, it was like, “they’re people who deserve to go to prison”. But I’ve done a lot of thinking and reading and talking to people about it and I think the turning point for me came precisely when I realized that when you talk about prison abolition, it’s not so much about eliminating these horrific buildings, it’s reimagining society. It’s imagining a world where you don’t need prisons, where societies are transformed. So that, first of all, you have egalitarian societies, so you don’t have the problems of extreme wealth inequality, poverty, and injustice that are so often at the root of the transgressions. And that you also have other ways of thinking about what to do when somebody has wronged somebody else. And of course, now we have all these models of restorative justice, but I think it’s really coming back to the community and how you provide communities with the resources that they need to flourish, where children have access to education and employment opportunities.

And when wrongs occur,  the community can take that up and deal with how you promote reconciliation and justice as your community envisions it. I know it sounds very utopian. My friends who aren’t working with me in this space are like, “Oh, that’s never going to happen”. But we have to believe that there is a world better than the one we have now. At least that’s what I dream of.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.