Out of every 100 prisoners in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, 5 are women. This percentage has risen drastically over the past years. In April of 1998, there were 2,500 women in the state’s prisons and jails.
In October of 2003, there were 4,000 occupying the same amount of physical space in the jails. In the last five years, the number of women in jails has increased more than 60%.
The increase in the number of female prisoners is related to a modern phenomenon: on the one hand, a number of women are gaining ground in the area of human rights, such as equality with men; and on the other hand, many of them are unfortunately gaining their space in the world of crime and marginalization.
The charge most common among male prisoners is robbery; however, the majority of women are imprisoned for illegal drugs, more for the use of these than for trafficking. There are many women who are in jail because they happened to be at home when the police arrive looking for their partner.
There are drugs in the home and so they are arrested. Sometimes the women play the role of "mule" they carry the drugs to the male trafficker. Women get involved in drugs out of financial despair, or sometimes because of their own addictions. And there are cases where the women are indeed traffickers.
Thievery is another crime which women often commit, many times out of economic need. One woman stole ten bottles of shampoo so that she could buy some cooking gas. People often buy such stolen merchandise because it is cheaper.
The question arises: when people buy such merchandise, are they helping a woman in need, or are they contributing to the woman’s eventual imprisonment? Women should not be given heavy sentences for this type of crime. But they often stay in prison for months or even years waiting for trial and sentencing.
Female prisoners are slowly gaining rights, such as the right for a woman to nurse her newborn. She is given place in the prison’s nursery, and can stay with the baby for the first 4-6 months, with the right to go every day to the prison’s outdoor patio.
This is a right on paper, but it has yet to be applied to all women prisoners with babies. What most frequently happens is that after birth, the baby stays in the hospital for two weeks, and the mother returns to the prison waiting for a place to open up in the nursery.
Groups such as the Center of Human Rights and the Church’s prison ministry are working for other rights, such as the right for women to have conjugal visits, access to health care, and work and study opportunities.
After completing their sentences, the majority of women hope to go home, take care of their children, and work. Research shows that the most important factor in the re-insertion of the woman into society is rebuilding family structures.
Therefore, personal therapy and job training are indispensable while she is in prison, because when she gets out, she will be expected to sustain the home emotionally and financially.
Unfortunately, there are few public policies for women prisoners. Unlike their male counterparts, they do not dig tunnels, they rarely have riots, they are less violent, and they do not appear in the newspapers.
They are invisible and forgotten by the State. Many in the government, from the executive to the juridical powers, say that they are concerned about "re-education and re-insertion," but only in words. Is seems that what is most important for them is the punishment.
What would be more healthy and educational is if a woman were given alternative sentencing, a penalty which would demand the woman to repair what or who was violated, and thus reintegrating her into the society, instead of separating her from her family.
We cannot continue to accept women going to prisons for having stolen a liter of milk or a little bit of bread to feed her hungry children, while judges, police, lawyers and politicians are involved in money laundering, embezzling public funds; while powerful drug traffickers extort and steal millions of dollars; and while these same people accused of crime rest at home or on their family ranches awaiting sentencing. As long as such continues, there will never be a just and democratic Brazil.
Heidi Cerneka is National Coordinator of the Brazilian Church’s Ministry to Women Prisoners.