Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Women Inmates Share Prison Conditions with Their Children

OAXACA, Mexico , Aug 31 2011 (IPS) - María S. lays her infant son down on one of the cold concrete slabs of her cell in the central penitentiary of Santa María Ixcotel, in the metropolitan area of this city in southwestern Mexico.

Wrapped only in a small, thin blanket, the child starts to cry. María S. (who asks that her last name not be disclosed) comforts him and finally lies down on the floor, as the other nine inmates sharing the 20-square-metre space look on.

Incarcerated on charges of petty drug dealing, 19-year-old María S., a member of the Zapotec indigenous community, is one of 234 women inmates currently held in the 14 overcrowded jailhouses distributed throughout the state of Oaxaca.

Abandoned by her family, she is just one example of the women jailed under appalling conditions in this state’s penitentiary system.

The weakest link

According to data from the Public Security Department (SSP) in Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, women account for six percent of the state’s inmate population.

The 234 female inmates include women still awaiting trial as well as those who have been convicted.

If a women’s prison is not available in the jurisdiction where they are charged, women are sent to the female wards of one of the 14 state penitentiaries.

The women are for the most part poor, and most of them are single mothers with children under five in their care – the age at which they must give up custody of their children, placing them with a relative or guardian.

The inmates have to manage on their own to provide for their children, as they receive no assistance from prison authorities, who do not provide any specific food for young children, for instance.

Some of the women were arrested for small-scale drug smuggling or dealing, others for homicide.

There are 29 indigenous women, mostly Zapotec from the southern mountain range, but there are also women from the Mixe, Mixtec, Triqui and other indigenous peoples.

The majority of these women were forced into crime by their dire economic situation. Some are in jail after pleading guilty but others are still mired in legal procedures, awaiting trial.

Poverty does not leave many options for these women: either they go hungry or join the drug trade. So they take their chances as “drug mules”. They are the weakest link, sociologist Concepción Núñez Miranda says, the most vulnerable cog in the machinery of impunity that underpins the drug trade.

According to Núñez Miranda, author of a book entitled “Drug Trafficking, Poverty, Justice and Human Rights: Indigenous Women Jailed for Crimes Against Health”, until Mexico tackles the problem of extreme poverty, more and more people will continue to migrate up north and into the United States and will be easy prey for the drug cartels.

“We need to revise current efforts supposedly aimed at combating drug trafficking in Mexico, which have been ineffective, and instead channel resources to health, education and job creation services, and address structural poverty, which is the cause of so many women being unjustly imprisoned,” she says.

Núñez Miranda, who in 2006 received an honorary mention in the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz thesis competition organised by the National Women’s Institute (Inmujeres), said Oaxaca women “are on their own.”

“Their partners have migrated and they have been abandoned by their immediate families, who cannot afford the cost of travelling to the towns or cities where the women are jailed and who are unwilling to go through the humiliating searches prison visitors are subjected to,” she explains.

The expert said a gender approach is necessary to protect the rights of female inmates.

“A gender approach to imprisonment means being aware that the impact on women is different (than on men) and, therefore, women cannot be treated merely from a quantitative perspective,” she says.

Especially vulnerable

Seventy-two percent of all inmates have not yet gone before a judge, and have not been sentenced, the undersecretary of crime prevention and social reintegration, Emmanuel Castillo Ruiz, reports.

Due to the overcrowded conditions in prisons, he says, many of these women are placed in cells with inmates who have already been convicted.

He says there are currently seven pregnant women who will be transferred to the Oaxaca Public Health Civil Hospital as soon as they go into labour.

He admits that the children’s incarceration along with their mothers means that they are exposed to the same daily hardships suffered by the women as a result of overcrowded facilities.

The undersecretary explains that his department spends 8.6 pesos (70 cents of a dollar) per person to feed inmates incarcerated for state-level crimes, and 50 pesos (four dollars) for those jailed for federal offences.

* This article was originally published by the Mexican news agency Comunicación e Información de la Mujer AC (CIMAC).

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