Women make up for the fastest- growing prison population in Latin America, and the world. Most of them are single mothers from marginalized backgrounds, held on low level drug trafficking charges. While governments across the region continue to promote tough-on-crime policies, data raises questions over how effective they are. Here’s all you need to know.

Words: Josefina Salomón / Editing: Madeleine Penman / Illustraton: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

Who, Where, Why?

Women on top: At least when it comes to the growing prison population, with an increase of 60 percent across the world since 2000 – a whopping difference against the 22 percent increase in men, according to the fifth edition of the World Female Imprisonment List, released in October 2022. Experts found that the profile of women held behind bars in Latin America is bizarrely similar: most are mothers, often in charge of their households and coming from situations of extreme vulnerability. Coletta Youngers, an expert on drug policy and incarceration, says that judges tend to punish women harder. “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.”

Incarceration Nations: Can you guess which is the country with the highest female prison population? It’s the United States with a rate of about 64 per 100,000 of the national population. Countries in Latin America have not been doing very well either, with an increase of more than 150 percent since 2000 in the region. Brazil stands out in the list, third in the world after the U.S. and China, and Mexico is in 10th place. El Salvador and Guatemala are not far behind, boasting some of the highest rates of incarcerated women per capita in the planet. Is any region doing better? Actually, yes. Europe (excluding Russia) is one of the few places where the number of women in prison has decreased over the last 20 years. 

Why is this happening? There are many factors, which change depending on issues such as political history, level of violent crime and political context, among others. In Latin America, one of the main drivers include punitive drug laws and policies that punish every person involved in the distribution chain, no matter their power in any given organization or the profits they make. In fact, in most countries in the region, even though the number of men held in prison is higher than that of women, the percentage of women incarcerated for drug-related offender is almost always higher than that of men. 

Orange is the new …

Life behind bars is hardly a Netflix show. Added to the ongoing crisis of severe overcrowding, lack of sanitation, food, health or any kind of effective opportunities or security for most people held behind bars in Latin America,  face gender-based discrimination, sexual violence and inadequate health care services. 

“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,” human rights activist and formerly incarcerated woman, Claudia Cardona told In.Visibles. 

Tragedy. The extent of the crisis of female imprisonment made shockwaves in June 2023 when nearly 50 women died during the deadliest riot in Honduras’ only female prison. Media outlets  that most of the women died as a result of a fire that was lit by a gang fighting with a rival group, while others were shot, stabbed or beaten to death. While authorities  the prison system has been “hijacked” by organized crime and promised to take action, human rights organizations said this was a tragedy foretold. In a report published in 2021, Human Rights Watch  “Overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, poor sanitation, beatings, intra-gang violence, and detainee killings are endemic in prisons in Honduras.”

Bottom of the ladder. Trans women are also among some of the most marginalized people among the prison population. With a low life expectancy and facing high levels of discrimination and social stigma, many trans women across Latin America turn to the illicit economy, including sex work and the drug trade, which often leads to . Once behind bars, trans women tend to be  to acute discrimination, violence and abuse, particularly when they are housed in prisons with men. Baz Dreisinger, a journalist, activist and author who has researched the issue of prisons for decades, says this kind of discrimination is linked to the “ritualistic” nature of prisons. “Everywhere in the world, there is that ‘other’: The person who has been designated as disposable and whether that’s racialized or genderized, certainly class, whatever it is, sexual orientation, these are disposable people and they’re almost the sort of scapegoats of society where we can enact all of the rituals of throwing away the group that we just don’t want anymore.” 

A different way?

Prison vs Jobs: This is what Colombia has been testing since late 2022. It allows for some women who are single heads of households to serve their sentences outside of prison, even working. The idea behind the move is to reduce the prison population, particularly of those who do not play a significant role in criminal organizations, which make up for around . On paper, the change should help reduce overcrowding in women’s prisons, allow families to stay together, help with their economic wellbeing and keep women from committing crimes that put them back behind bars. Implementation of the law, however, is coming with its own set of challenges, in particular when it comes to resources.  

Electronic Monitoring: Allowing people to serve at least part of their sentences at home while being monitored is an approach that countries, including Mexico, are turning to in a bid to ease prison overcrowding. Great idea, right? Well, not so much. Experts found that how the use of electronic monitoring looks like in  depending on the resources of the individual having to use it  — think of someone living in an upper class neighbourhood with help at home versus an individual who is financially responsible for their families and is unable to leave the house. “Electronic monitoring just incarcerates people in a different way,” Coletta Youngers explains. “Obviously, if you’re in prison and the alternative is to get out with an ankle bracelet, 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. Many women I have talked to have said, ‘well, at least in prison, they gave me something to eat’.“

High Vulnerability: This is the reasoning a judge in Argentina gave when in 2021 he acquitted a 63-year-old woman who was found carrying three kilos of cocaine in the north of the country. The court ruling made headlines as women across the country, and particularly in border areas, are imprisoned in high numbers on small time drug trafficking charges. According to the investigation, the woman had crossed from the town of Salvador Maza, in the province of Salta, to the Bolivian city of Yacuiba, where she presumably was supplied with the drugs. It later emerged that she took this risk as a single mother in need of money to pay for surgery for her son.