IHR Clinic Releases Report on Causes, Conditions, and Consequences of Women in Prison in Argentina

Argentine Drug Policy Disproportionately Affects Women

Cornell University Law School, University of Chicago Law School and the Public Defender's Office of Argentina
May 14, 2013

Women and their families are disproportionately affected by the harsh penalties imposed for low-level drug offences in Argentina, according to a report by the Cornell Law School’s Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and International Human Rights Clinic, University of Chicago Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and the Public Defender’s Office in Argentina. High rates of women imprisonment on drug charges can be traced to the response of many Latin American countries to the U.S. “War on Drugs” policy beginning in the 1970s, according to the report, “Women in Prison in Argentina: Causes, Conditions, and Consequences,” released today. The report is available here in English and Spanish.

The Report draws on data collected from a survey of incarcerated women, on-site visits to two prisons in Argentina and in-person interviews with women prisoners, scholars, activists, judges, and other stakeholders in late 2012. Using survey responses from nearly 30% of the women currently detained in the Argentine federal prison system, researchers were able to specifically target the crucial issues for women deprived of their liberty. “The results of our survey found that about 56% of women in Argentina’s federal prisons were incarcerated for drug trafficking,” said Sital Kalantry, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School and director of the International Human Rights Clinic.  

Outdated policies introduced in Argentina during the American “War on Drugs” weigh down the Argentine federal prison system and impede effective reform. These policies, which were adopted by countries throughout Latin America, have contributed to the unprecedented increase in the number of women deprived of their liberty. In Argentina, the number of female prisoners within the federal system increased 193% between 1990 and 2012, while the male population rose only 111% over the same period.

“These women are typically low-level drug mules forced into the role by economic necessity,” Elizabeth Brundige, Executive Director of Cornell Law School’s Avon Global Center for Women & Justice, stated. “The Argentine Government should consider utilizing alternatives to incarceration in such cases.” 

Despite the effect Argentina’s drug laws have had on women, the Report notes that Argentina has demonstrated a willingness to develop and implement gender-specific initiatives. Two of these progressive measures - house arrest and programs that allow children to live with their mothers in prison - are specifically designed to alleviate the hardships that women with children face. However, Wade Poziomka, Cornell Law School LLM ‘13, noted comments from one of his interviews: “Not all of the women felt comfortable with their children growing up in prison. A Peruvian woman incarcerated for drug trafficking was afraid that living in that environment would irreparably harm her child.”

The Report identifies several reforms that would improve the treatment of women in the prison system and allow the government to successfully meet the gender-specific needs of incarcerated women. Among the key recommendations: reduce drug trafficking sentences for women who are at the bottom of the chain and offer alternatives to incarceration; reduce the use and length of pre-trial detention; and, ensure that all prisoners receive timely access to medical care and screening. “Argentina has the opportunity to set the standard for the treatment of incarcerated women in Latin America,” stated Silvia Martinez, Director of the Prison Commission of the Public Defender’s Office in Argentina.  

The Report also encourages the United States to continue its move towards reducing or eliminating harsh punishments for drug crimes and to effect similar changes in its foreign policies towards Argentina and other countries in the region.  

The Report will be launched at a panel discussion May 14th at the University of Chicago Law School moderated by Professor Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.