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Women behind bars | The World Weekly

Marred by reports of gang-orchestrated massacres, overcrowding and health epidemics, Brazil’s much-maligned prison system is infamous. But while the grisly beheadings of male inmates during riots have often grabbed the headlines, the plight of the rocketing number of incarcerated women in Brazil has seldom been documented.

According to human rights organisations, the female inmates of Brazil must navigate a deplorable prison system that not only discriminates against them as women, but exacerbates gender inequality by failing to meet agreed-upon international standards. What is worse, they say, is that Brazil is a microcosm of a wider global trend.

Brazil’s female prison population has soared in recent years. Between 2000 and 2016 it rose from 10,112 to around 44,700 women, according to World Prison Brief, a global prisons database. Observers attribute much of this unprecedented growth to a federal anti-drug law passed in 2006 that formed part of Brazil’s ongoing war on drugs.

The law originally intended to reduce the number of people detained for drug possession by making it easier for judges to distinguish between drug traffickers and drug users. In reality, however, it had the opposite effect. The law did not set out the quantitative threshold between traffickers and users, bolstering sentencing powers, and resulting in many users being prosecuted as traffickers. This was particularly true for those found in possession of marijuana, and those on the lowest rungs of the drug trade.

Experts say this disproportionately affected young, poor and black women who lack the finances or bargaining power to escape custodial sentences. According to the Brazilian justice ministry, as many as 63% of women — compared to 25% of men — incarcerated in Brazilian prisons in 2014 were there because of minor drug related offences, such as transporting, safekeeping, and small-time dealing, often at the behest of their gang-affiliated husbands and boyfriends.

Female inmates gather with babies as they greet visitors in the Pedrinhas Prison Complex, the largest penitentiary in Maranhao state, on January 27, 2015, in Sao Luis, Brazil.

Prison abuse

Human rights groups say Brazilian prisons are not set up to deal with the massive influx of women into their care and are lagging behind both international guidelines on gender-specific approaches to incarceration — as outlined in the UN’s Bangkok Rules, of which Brazil is a signatory — as well as the laws of its own government.

The UN’s Bangkok Rules, adopted in 2010 and signed by 193 states, give guidance on how to reduce imprisonment of women, and how to meet the specific needs of women who are incarcerated.

For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in 2017 that despite Brazilian law dictating that women should be held in exclusive prisons, the majority are housed in wings within male prisons. “Several women reported that during a 2015 riot in Minas Gerais, male prisoners broke into their wing and raped them."

But even within designated women’s prisons institutional abuse is rife. While investigating Bom Pastor women’s prison in Recife in 2016, HRW found 630 women crammed into cells built for 270.

“Prenatal and postpartum medical care are minimal or non-existent, and two thirds of female detention centres lack designated facilities for pregnant women and babies,” Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director for Human Rights Watch, told The World Weekly.

“In Brazil, mass incarceration of women for non-violent crimes only reinforces gender inequality.”

To enter the unsanitary, violent, and inhumane cells of Brazil’s prisons is to step into a cruel netherworld where neither Brazilian nor international law seem to apply. For women behind bars, there is added anguish.” - Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director for Human Rights Watch.

Pre-trial detention

Another reason for the upsurge in female inmates is due to what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called Brazil’s “arbitrary and illegal application of pre-trial detention”, which observers say unnecessarily puts some women at risk of maltreatment.

The UN reported in 2007 that a 15-year-old girl arrested on suspicion of petty theft was placed in pre-trial detention in Pará State. Held in a police cell for 26 days with about 20 adult male prisoners, she was reportedly “raped by several co-prisoners”.

Inmate contestants participate in the annual beauty pageant at the Talavera Bruce women’s prison on November 24, 2015, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Although such distressing cases are not uncommon, there has been some cause for hope. In February, Brazil’s Supreme court issued a landmark ruling that will soon allow pregnant women, mothers of children up to the age of 12 and people with disabilities to await trial under house arrest. This could result in 15,000 women currently held pending trials being released.

There are already individual cases of women benefitting from the ruling, Ms. Canineu told TWW, “but unfortunately, there are reports of judges that are still reluctant and denying the possibility for some women.”

A global trend

“Numbers of women and girls imprisoned worldwide are rising at a rate that far outstrips increases in male prisoner numbers,” Catherine Heard, director of the World Prison Research Programme at the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), told TWW. “This is the case on every continent, with increases reported in both developed and less developed countries.”

There are now more than 714,000 women and girls held in 219 national prison systems around the world, an increase of more than 50% since 2000, compared to a 20% increase for men. Rises in the female prison population in the Americas, Asia and Oceania have been about three, four and five times respectively the increases in the general population of those countries, according to an ICPR report.

The surge is in part due to women being charged with or convicted of non-violent, minor offences relating to poverty and familial roles, such as property and drug-related offences, Penal Reform International (PRI) reported last year.

For example, in Ireland 80% of female committals were for non-payment of fines. Similarly, in England and Wales failing to pay the television license accounted for 36% of all prosecutions of women. Drug charges and convictions account for over 90% of female prisoners in Indonesia and the Philippines.

In Sierra Leone women were imprisoned under Ebola-related by-laws, such as selling food items during curfew and gathering in crowds after a family member had died. Half of all women in Afghan prisons are thought to have been convicted of “moral crimes”. “Abortion is criminalised in a number of countries, even cases of rape, prostitution and ‘running away’ also largely penalise women,” said the PRI report.

Inmates pray inside a cell in the women's section of the Anisio Jobim penitentiary complex on February 17, 2016, in Manaus, Brazil.

In some countries, non-custodial alternatives to detention are invariably tailored to men and not equally available to women. For instance, fines and bail “can be restricted for women who don’t have access to such funds, or laws may require the offender to own property for bail to be granted,” Olivia Rope, Policy and Programme manager at PRI, told TWW. “In many countries women don’t own property, their male partners do, so they are excluded and thus end up in prison.”

The increase is concerning to observers on many levels. For one, women are more likely to have suffered abuse both before, and after, incarceration in prison systems the world over. Egyptian women taking part in a peaceful protest in Tahrir Square in 2011 were arrested and forced to take “virginity tests”. “Make no doubt about it,” Amnesty International reported at the time, “this constitutes torture.”

Mental illness is overrepresented among women in prison, as 80% have an identifiable mental disorder.” - Women’s Health in Prison, a 2009 report by the WHO

When women are disproportionately detained for minor crimes, it often leaves a socioeconomic chasm within families and society as a whole.

In Brazil, it is estimated that over 80% of inmates are mothers, according to Pastoral Carcerária, a local non-profit. When mothers are imprisoned the burden of childcare usually falls upon other female family members, neighbours or friends. This leads to gender disparity as the unequal division of unpaid domestic work often falls squarely on women.

Ms. Rope says that while some countries have adopted policies and practices to align with the Bangkok Rules, “overall we are disappointed to see that with a few exceptions this is sporadic and not in a sustainable, comprehensive way.”

New laws, such as Brazil’s recent attempt to reduce pre-trial detention are seen as a step in the right direction. But there is a long way to go both in Brazil and globally, if the disproportionate increase in female imprisonment is to be halted.

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