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BOOKS-ARGENTINA: Women Prisoners Tell Their Stories

Luciana Peker

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 30 2007 (IPS) - The daily experiences, codes of language and behaviour and rituals of women in Ezeiza prison, on the outskirts of the Argentine capital, form the rugged terrain that journalist and writer Marta Dillon explores in her latest book.

In “Captive Hearts: Life in a Women’s Prison”, published by the Editorial Alfaguara publishing house in its Argentine Chronicles collection, the journalist once again addresses gender issues, but this time within a little-known universe: a correctional institution for women located close to Ezeiza, the country’s main international airport.

Dillon started her career in 1989, covering police news, and later she specialised in gender issues.

In 2004 she published the book “Living With the Virus: Stories of Everyday Life”, a collection of newspaper columns she had written in the first person between 1995 and 2003 on how to live with HIV, which won a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) prize in 1998.

Dillon’s latest book, published in December, tells the prisoners’ experiences. As a group, they are vulnerable twice over, because they are women and because they are marginalised. “The great majority are poor, and nearly 20 percent are foreigners, an aspect directly related to the law on drugs,” the author says.

Federal Penitentiary Service (SPF) statistics about the educational level of inmates indicate that 139 of the prisoners registered in Ezeiza in 2005 had not completed primary school, 305 had only completed primary schooling, 193 had started secondary school but not completed it, 63 had completed secondary school, and only three had ever set foot in a university.

Dillon became interested in the subject because of the rise in the number of women in prison. “From 1983 onwards, after Argentina returned to democracy, the number of women in jail remained at a steady five percent of the total prison population.”

“However, in the late 1990s it reached nearly 10 percent, thanks to the application of the law which punishes possession, consumption and trafficking of drugs, which in one decade resulted in three times as many women in prison,” Dillon said.

The relationship between drugs and women prisoners is due to women being used as “mules” (couriers) in the illegal traffic of narcotics.

“Most of the women are adults and have children, and are over 30 the first time they are incarcerated. These facts can be read to indicate that they have sought an alternative means of earning an income, impelled by desperation and social exclusion,” Dillon wrote in her investigation.

The journalist put the economic statistics alongside the prison data: “The period when the number of women prisoners grew most rapidly, from 1993 to 2003, was the time of greatest social exclusion in Argentina, and it was also the time when the number of women heads of household, in sole charge of supporting their families, rose the fastest.”

The economic policies of the rightwing administration of Carlos Menem (1989-1999), which opened up the country to foreign trade and shrank the state, privatising nearly all public enterprises, finally led to a severe recession in the late 1990s. Poverty levels, which historically had been very low, rose to nearly 60 percent of the 37 million people in Argentina at the beginning of this decade.

Dillon’s interest in prison life also stemmed from personal and political motives. Her mother, Marta Taboada, was held in various torture camps during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, and is one of the roughly 30,000 people who were forcibly disappeared by the regime, according to human rights groups’ figures.

“I’m interested in how people bear captivity. I asked the first person I met who had lived with my mother in the illegal detention centres whether my mother talked about her children,” she wrote.

The system’s treatment of the children of women prisoners is currently a subject of debate in Argentina.

In spite of the existence of a law that authorises women inmates to have their children under five living with them, a report by the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) said that most jails do not have childcare centres nor special programmes tailored to these children’s needs, which violates their rights.

For instance, Unit 31, the only SPF prison that has a child care centre, holds 229 inmates, 88 of whom are mothers and have between them 95 children. More than 82 percent of these women said they spent 24 hours a day with their children, and 62 percent said that the children were not fed properly.

In addition, 38.9 percent of women who gave birth to babies in the prison unit said that prison staff noted this fact on the children’s birth certificate, which would obviously result in social stigma for the children and is a violation of the Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted by the United Nations.

“In most of the units, the children have no educational activities, and the condition of the buildings is inappropriate if the children are to grow and develop in a healthy environment,” CEJIL reported.

On the basis of this information, Deputy Marcela Rodríguez, of the opposition Alternative for a Republic of Equals (ARI) party and head of the Justice and Gender group at the Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of Public Policies (CIEPP), presented a draft law in the Senate for women prisoners with children under five to serve their sentences under house arrest.

The draft law must be debated this year, and if approved, mothers will be able to continue to raise their children at home, under suitable surveillance.

“In general, there is a serious lack of gender perspective in the prison regime. Women’s specific needs are not considered in the prison system, and this results in a worsening of the conditions in which they serve their terms, as well as a lack of respect for and violations of their rights,” Rodríguez told IPS.

To combat this situation, lawyer and former prison inmate Clara Susana Sajnovetzky created an association called “Por la vuelta clara” (roughly, “for a clean return”) to help and support women prisoners when they are released.

“We created this civil association, which enjoys ample cooperation from the Ministry of Justice because, if a woman leaving jail is given support, a potential new crime can be prevented. In addition, the aim is for this vulnerable person not to go back into a social risk group,” Sajnovetzky said.

She pointed out that “this initiative to help previously excluded women to rejoin society when they get out of prison is setting a real example of how to care for human rights.”

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