Reports of poor housing conditions and abuses are the norm in most prisons across Latin America, but many women who spent time behind bars argue that the challenges continue even after they are released. Claudia Cardona is one of them.

Text: Josefina Salomón / Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

Claudia Cardona, human rights activist, director and co-founder of Mujeres Libres, says the lack of care and support programmes affects most women when they are released. And she knows what she is talking about. Having spent more than nine years deprived of her liberty, she decided to dedicate her time to making a difference. The recent approval of a ground-breaking law unique in Latin America, might prove she is succeeding.

In.Visibles (IV): How would you describe the prison situation in Colombia and Latin America in general, particularly for women

Claudia Cardona (CC): In women’s prisons the regime is very different from that of men, it is much harsher. The women guards are harsher with the women deprived of their liberty and judge the mothers more severely, for example. 

This is in addition to the issue of food, health services and infrastructure, all of which is terrible. The infrastructure of women’s prisons is not made for the needs of women. Toilets without doors, sinks where you have to wash your slab, your clothes, brush your teeth, everything in the same place. A while ago, for example, we thought it was cool to be able to bring menstrual cups into the prison, but when we talked to the women they told us they couldn’t use them because they would have to wash them in the same sink. There is also no specialised care, such as gynaecology. 

All this adds to the issue of care, because even in prisons, women continue to take on these care roles, to look after their children, their daughters or people who are outside, working inside with bad pay. 

IV: The issue of responsibility for care is a huge difference…

CC: Yes, for a man deprived of his liberty it is a woman who takes care of him. A woman is usually the one who works in order to be able to send him toiletries, to be able to send him a consignment, to be able to visit him at the weekend and bring him some food, but she also takes care of his children. But when a woman is in prison, the man abandons her and even abandons the children. So you pay a double sentence, because one suffers, of course, the deprivation of freedom, but as women we have these responsibilities outside, which become a bigger burden, and I say burden in how we manage it. 

"The State seems to want to show results with a lot of arrests. What happens is that these arrests are of poor women, in vulnerable situations, the weakest link in the drug trafficking chain, which can easily be replaced."

IV: In many Latin American countries, a large percentage of women who are deprived of their liberty are incarcerated for crimes related to drug trafficking

CC: Yes, here in Colombia we look at the statistics and the vast majority of women are deprived of their liberty for drug-related crimes. These are non-violent crimes, where women could avoid prison, but the State seems to want to show results with a lot of arrests. What happens is that these arrests are of poor women, in vulnerable situations, the weakest link in the drug trafficking chain, which can easily be replaced.

IV: What do you think drives a woman to get involved with a criminal group?

CC: I always say that yes, I am guilty of committing a crime, but in the end I am not 100 percent guilty, because the State did not give me the guarantees I need so I wouldn’t be left with no alternatives. So, there is no study, no work, all those guarantees, all those rights that the state should guarantee me. So, this leads many women to look at other options. States punish women for what they don’t do and for what they do, even if they didn’t want to. So, if a woman has children and has responsibilities and cannot feed them and the children are malnourished, the State, society, the neighbours, everyone would say she is a bad mother and even take her children away. But if there are no opportunities and she looks for a way to feed them, and crime is one of the ways, then she is also punished because it goes against the role she is meant to play. 

When a man is being tried, he is not told “you are not an example for society or for your children and that’s why I’m sending you to jail.” But a woman, she is usually told: “Oh, you are not an example for your children. You didn’t think about them”. In other words, it’s very complicated. And this happens throughout the region and the world. 

IV: Colombia has just passed a new law that allows some women prisoners to serve their sentences outside of prison. What can you tell us about the law?

CC: For the last four years Mujeres Libres has been working on this law, since it was a draft bill. Although the law is not the best, it is the first in Colombia, even in the region, where women who are deprived of their liberty or who are going to be deprived of their liberty, can, instead of going to prison, get out and pay for their sentence with social services to the community, what they call public utility services. 

Congress had approved it but the previous president (Iván Duque) had not signed it because the Bill, among other things, covered drug offences, but how could drug offences not be included if they are the biggest cause of deprivation of liberty for women? In the end, we continued to insist with the new government and the law was passed on 8 March, International Women’s Day. The main objective is that these women can leave so that they can support their families, their children and all their dependents. 

We are now in the process of regulation. It is going to be a challenge to implement the law, because the women are meant to provide social services in government entities or in NGOs and, therefore, positions need to be opened. The difficulty is all of the social stigma that exists. Also, these public services are unpaid. The law has an article on employability and gives two years for the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Justice to implement a public policy on employability. 

It seems that the challenges women face in prison continue even after they are released… 

CC: Absolutely. When you get out of prison there are a thousand problems and a thousand more that I don’t know about. In general, what we know is that when you get out of prison and you have a criminal record, getting a job is very difficult. The criminal record is public, anyone can look it up on the internet and so employers always use this. The issue of a criminal record also harms women who cannot return to their homes where there was violence and need to look for alternative accommodation. I have this flat, I live in this flat, but it is not in my name. It is in the name of a third party. Even I who have a salary and can prove income, I can’t do it. In other words, after six years of regaining my freedom, it feels like history cannot be erased. 

Of course, my situation is different from those of my colleagues. I have a job, but most of them can’t get a job, so there is nothing for them. Society says “Oh, well, I would sell food at the door”. But even for this you need money. You don’t get out of prison with money and the banks close their doors to you. You can’t even open  a savings accounts because of your criminal record, let alone ask for a loan for a business or for housing, for whatever, you can’t because you are reported in the credit bureaus. So it’s not that easy. 

IV: What happens to women who have established a relationship with a criminal organisation?

CC: When they are in prison, the organizations forget about them. If there was an organization that supported them, they wouldn’t be in such a bad situation inside. Economically they might have some resources, but they are often forgotten. They just go and replace those women with other women. For some of them, when they go out and they are in bad shape, they don’t have enough to eat, to feed their children, the organizations tell them: “come and work for us”. Many of them do it and others will say no, but it is very difficult with the situation that you are in when you are released from prison, it is very complicated. I have always said it, how do you want there to be no recidivism if there are no opportunities?

There are women who are able to get jobs, both formal and informal, when they leave. So, for example, we have had colleagues who have got formal jobs, with a contract, from employers who didn’t check their background, but a month later they have called me crying, “W hat happened? To pay me my first salary I had to open a payroll account and the bank didn’t open it for me and I said I didn’t know why, but the company called the bank and they found out. And they took me out, they fired me”. This has happened many times. It has also happened with colleagues who don’t say it either or don’t look at the background, but when they find out, then they start to give them more work. If they already have to work eight hours, they put them to work on weekends, in the evenings. I have a colleague who even had to resign because she felt harassed, after the company found out. She was already hired, but they found out. And then the Human Resources Office leaked the information and the colleagues found out. So the same colleagues were all over her. But also in informal jobs, employers also take advantage. There has been sexual violence, abuse, like touching, even rape. They say to them: “Well, be thankful that I have you working here because you have a record”. And so the women don’t denounce, one because they are afraid, two because they need the job.

It’s like a double sentence. We call it a life sentence, because even if we haven’t spent our whole lives in prison, we get out and it’s the same. 

IV: In prison, is there no preparation for what happens afterwards?

CC: In prison, the issue of re-socialisation doesn’t exist and the occupational activities that are given don’t help you once you are released. Activities like knitting, sewing, make-up, nail repair, knitting, making handles, all stereotypical activities but also things that won’t pay the rent when you are out, rent, utilities, support my family, sustain myself, that is, I won’t be able to make ends meet. So, this problem is inside but the consequences can also be seen outside. 

IV: What would be an alternative model to this?

CC: Well, here in Colombia we have worked on the issue of restorative justice, the problem is that everyone works on their own and nothing gets done. 

I will give you an example of a colleague. When this colleague was deprived of her liberty she was tortured by a guard, so she responded and hit the guard. The guard then filed a complaint and about six years after she regained her freedom, with a family and a child, an intelligent girl with a scholarship at a private university, she was subjected to a new trial. 

We got a lawyer, who helped us a lot, and a psychologist as well. Between the four of us we started to formulate a strategy. The message was that she should not be sent back to prison and, in this way, cut the whole process that had begun, with all the change she had achieved. Then, the judge and the prosecutor accepted restorative justice and they asked her to make a video in which she asked the guard for forgiveness, being the tortured one, but well, where she asked for forgiveness from the guard and that it would be on YouTube and that it would have so many views and comments. With the help of the lawyer and the psychologist, we made a video that showed more of her life: “I was like this and now I do this. This is why I am making this video. I ask for forgiveness. The crime I committed was this inside the prison, but my life now is this”. And it was spectacular.

The prosecutor’s intention was that she had to apologise to the guardian and tell society that what she had done was wrong. In other words, restorative justice, but punitive. So we took a different approach to the video. Two months ago, the process was closed.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.