Women’s prisons: abuse runs rampant

Mexico, April 2015

More than 12,000 women in Mexico live in conditions that are substandard and dangerous, where widespread sexual abuse, inadequate services and outright neglect are a part of everyday life.

The women are those housed in 77 of the country’s 102 prisons, and were the subjects of a study released this week by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).

The Special Report on Women Deprived of Liberty in Detention Centers in Mexico followed a study carried out between February and March of 2014 and included data from 11,107 female inmates. That data revealed substandard and dangerous conditions and corruption in a majority of the women’s detention facilities, where as many as 12,690 women are being held on any given day.

Rampant human rights abuses and violations were documented, including neglect by correctional officials, prisons controlled by gangs, widespread sexual abuse, poor material conditions, inadequate services of all kinds, inequality between men’s and women’s prisons, poor nutrition and overcrowded conditions.

The study concluded that prisons for the fairer sex in Mexico are often overcrowded and run by mafias. Female inmates are victims of extortion and sexual abuse and sometimes forced into prostitution.The commission found deficiencies in food, hygiene, medical attention and child care. Women who were mistreated were forced to pay for “protection” from organized crime-linked “parallel governments.” These were sometimes run by male prisoners in the men’s part of the penitentiary.

In sociology this is identified as the system inside the system, one that is “self-governing” (no outside interference, please) with all the implications for abuse, corruption and unequal treatment.

The human rights group said that in 51 of the prisons studied, some women had to sleep on the floor among cockroaches and rats. In 20 prisons women were forced into prostitution and in other institutions they were forced to do the housekeeping chores, the cooking, cleaning and washing for their male counterparts.

This was in stark contrast to other incarcerated women who were better off and had access to private cells, plasma TVs, microwave ovens and even mobile phones.

According to the CNDH, the mafias may control the administration of facilities as well as the distribution of basic services to the population. Typically the gangs control cell space, privileges, conjugal visits, carrying out punishment and demanding extortion. This kind of “correctional” facility is in effect “self-governing” with all that implies for the benefit or suffering of the greater imprisoned population.

In Oaxaca, the Undersecretary of Crime Prevention and Social Reintegration, Emmanuel Castillo Ruiz, reported that 72% of the imprisoned women in that state are awaiting trial. Not only does incarceration of the pre-trial detainee contribute to overcrowded conditions, but unsentenced inmates spend three to six months side-by-side with convicted criminals.

The unsentenced inmates, for the most part, include individuals too poor to pay their bond or bail. They cannot pay for an attorney or the court fees so they go to jail, sometimes without even knowing what it is they are guilty of.It is also problematic that women are routinely housed in male prisons. This has been documented in reports submitted to CEDAW (the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) by human rights workers in Mexico. Women in this situation are often victims of male violence and sexual assault.

Approximately five per cent of Mexico’s prison population is female. However, only 13 out of 455 prisons (2.8%) are exclusively female, the rest are mixed. A study of 92 mixed prisons found that 22 women’s dormitories were located inside male facilities and inmates even used shared facilities.

The Women’s Institute estimates that 96% of women in prison are mothers, and that once authorities arrest a woman her partner will often leave her and refuse to care for the children. Many prisons in Mexico allow women to keep their children with them until the age of three, after which they are placed with a family, usually the grandparents, or sent to an orphanage.

All this makes it difficult if not impossible for the mothers to see their children. According to the Women’s Institute the typical female prisoner is between the ages of 25 and 39, has three or four children and has received only primary education. Most women prisoners come from the most deprived social circumstances.

One political candidate in the upcoming elections says new legislation is needed that will mandate alternative sentencing for women charged with minor crimes, which will help with the overcrowding problem. Also, a new law is needed that will require separating sentenced and unsentenced inmate populations.

Another solution to improve the situation for women is not to build more prisons but to incorporate a viable economic, social and educational strategy that will help women escape the structural poverty that forces them to turn to crime for survival in the first place.