More women are being put behind bars. Fewer should be
One of Mexico’s newest prisons allows inmates to receive a conjugal visit every week. The rooms set aside for these visits at Coatlan del Rio have clean beds, showers and toilets. Any married inmate can use them, as can same-sex couples, if they tied the knot in a Mexican state where gay marriage is allowed.
Alas, the conjugal rooms are barely used. This is a women’s prison and their menfolk are a bit unreliable. ‘Women in prison are often abandoned,’ says an experienced guard at the prison. Of the 1,400 inmates, how many receive regular conjugal visits? ‘Only one’, she sighs. Another inmate was sentenced for smuggling drugs to her husband in a different jail. He was released and promptly found another woman, says the guard.
Serious criminals are nearly all male, which is why less than 10% of the world’s prisoners are women. But the number of female prisoners has soared by 50% since 2000. This is worrying. Women in prison are far less likely than men to have committed violent crimes, and more likely to have broken the law to support their families. In Indonesia and the Philippines, more than 90% of female prisoners have been charged with drug offences. In Ireland, 80% are jailed for non-payment of fines. Most Kenyans prosecuted for brewing illicit alcohol are women, perhaps because it is a crime that can be committed without leaving the children home alone. In Afghanistan, half the women in prison are there for ‘moral’ crimes such as eloping.
Locking up parents harms children; and female prisoners are much more likely to be custodial parents. Coatlan del Rio tries to keep mothers and small children together. It has a playground and a children’s library. Costa Rica recently tweaked its laws to make it harder to lock up women who smuggle drugs to jailed lovers or steal to support their hungry children. Punishments such as home arrest and electronic tagging hurt their children less.
The guard at Coatlan del Rio, who has worked in male and female prisons, describes the difference. Male prisoners look for bits of wire to make weapons and stab each other, she says. ‘Women look for wire to curl their eyelashes’.