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Portraits from Prison Tell Stories of Women in the Drug War

Women behind bars
Women are detained for minor drug-related offenses at Costa Rica’s Buen Pastor prison. © Jessamine Bartley-Matthews/WOLA

Across the Americas, repressive drug policies make easy targets of small-scale dealers and people who use drugs, while doing little to thwart large-scale traffickers or organized crime. At the same time, harsh drug policies have done little to curb the production, trafficking, and consumption of illicit drugs.

Instead, the war on drugs has had devastating consequences for individuals and communities alike, particularly for those already on the margins of society, including people living in poverty, sex workers, and racial and ethnic minorities.

In Latin America, some of the most perverse consequences of the drug war have been borne by women, many of whom are caught in a cycle of poverty or addiction that motivates their involvement in the small-scale sale or transport of drugs. Rarely are women imprisoned for large-scale drug trafficking offenses.

Their low-level involvement in the drug trade often comes at extremely high risk—if caught and convicted, they face disproportionately long sentences for their nonviolent crimes. Such penalties are ruinous not only to the women, but also to the families they struggle to support.

A recent photo essay published by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) vividly illustrates this cruel reality. In the Buen Pastor prison in Costa Rica, where the photos were taken, over 90 percent of the incarcerated women have three or more children who depend on them. A surge in the number of women imprisoned for drug offenses has worsened conditions in already overcrowded prisons and left the families of these women deeper in poverty.

Once released from prison, these women struggle to find employment, lacking the skills or opportunities needed to make ends meet. As a result, some return to selling or transporting drugs, furthering a vicious cycle of incarceration and poverty.

WOLA’s project is aimed at reforming drug policies to provide for more alternatives to incarceration and changes in sentencing practices for nonviolent drug offenders, particularly women. The WOLA project is one of a number of efforts supported by Open Society that seek to advance human rights and public health approaches to drug control, and to reform criminal justice policies that fuel mass incarceration and have a disproportionate impact on the poor. (For example, see our recent report, The Impact of Drug Policy on Women.)

In the lead-up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy in 2016, grantees across the United States and Latin America play a critical role in documenting the devastating impact of prohibitionist drug policies, and advocating for new, effective, and rights-based approaches to drug control, particularly for women.

The Washington Office on Latin America is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

See the complete photo essay on the human cost of drug policy in Latin America.

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