I just got back from the coast of Colombia, the city of Santa Marta. While we were there, we enjoyed the many beautiful beaches, soaked in the tranquila culture of the coastal natives, and trekked through a dense Colombian forest. But as I leave the office to continue on my adventures, I reflect on the work I have done thus far. I think many of us take for granted our ability to move freely or choose where we want to go, when we want to go there. But the reality is, there are plenty of people across the world who do not have such a luxury—including the very population my research has been focused on this summer.
Although only 7% of the total prisoner population, the number of female prisoners has increased significantly on a global scale in recent years. As part of my job this summer, I have investigated female prison conditions in Colombia in connection with national and international law/norms as well as conducted interviews with prisoners. The goal of the research is to educate the public on a human rights concern to which many people are oblivious and use the accurate information to lobby Colombia’s government to adhere to human rights obligations that it claims to support.
My research primarily revolved around the prisoners’ health, bodily integrity, interaction with the outside world, and rights of a mother. Since the prisons are dominated by a majority of male prisoners, the prison system is designed with male prisoners in mind. Unfortunately, the female perspective is either unheard or ignored resulting in inadequate health provisions such as lack of feminine products and prison uniforms designed for men. There are not enough female doctors to treat all of the prisoners and many incarcerated women have a history of sexual abuse, so often times female prisoners refrain from treatment because they do not feel comfortable with male doctors. Also, mental health is a real concern for inmates as well, but mental illnesses go untreated. One study states that a psychiatrist visits El Buen Pastor Prison in Bogotá once a week with the impossible objective of treating a population of 1,000 inmates.[i]
Arbitrary body searches are another human rights issue from which many female prisoners in Colombia suffer. Male guards have coerced female prisoners into trading sexual favors for preferential treatment and have accessed private quarters of the women inmates (like showers and sleeping areas), violating the personal integrity and privacy of the women. If the prisoners do not comply with body searches or other invasive demands, guards can restrict visitation or prohibit prisoners from other activities like recreation time. The United Nations Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that female inmates should be guarded by female officials, but there are not enough female guards to comply to this standard.
Since the female prisoner population is significantly smaller than their male counterparts, women inmates from rural parts of Colombia are often incarcerated far away from their families—resulting in families being torn apart. If distance doesn’t cut ties with family members, invasive entry policies or the stigma of being a woman in prison may. The gender role for a woman in Colombia (and much of Latin America) is to be the caregiver of the family, but when she is sent to prison the family considers her “bad” for failing to fulfill this role. On the contrary, male prisoners do not have as much familial disconnect. Instead, women are abandoned by their families or their families simply cannot travel to the distant prison. The concept of the “feminization of poverty” and imprisonment has surfaced in much of my research, which ultimately focuses on how women become incarcerated. The top crime women in Colombia are incarcerated for is drugs. Even though women is usually at the bottom of the drug hierarchy—acting as drug mules or low-quantity sellers or growers, they serve the same amount of jail time as large-scale producers or narco-traffickers.
Incarcerated mothers and pregnant women are also a human rights concern since many prisons do not have appropriate pre-natal care, breastfeeding areas, or childcare facilities. In Colombia, children can stay with their mother in prison until age three. After that time, they must either stay with a family member or leave with child protective services. The detrimental effects of separating a child from his/her mother can last a lifetime and even increase the child’s chances of incarceration. I hope the work I have done this summer will help fix the many problems in the Colombian prison system—particularly the struggles of female prisoners.
I could go on about issues concerning women inmates here in Colombia (and around the world), but I’m on to my next adventure… Stay tuned!
Here are some pictures of Santa Marta beaches and Tayrona National Park. The last picture is of my sister and me after a 3 hour hike to the beach!
[i] Bríceño-Donn, Marcela. “Mujeres y prisión en Colombia: análisis desde un perspectiva de derechos humanos y de género.”Procuraduría General de la Nación (PGN, 2007), Bogotá. ISBN 9789588295282.