May 16, 2013

Law School report targets Argentine women prisoners

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, the University of Chicago Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the public defender’s office in Argentina.

The report – “Women in Prison in Argentina: Causes, Conditions and Consequences” – was launched at a panel discussion May 14 at the University of Chicago Law School. It finds that policies introduced in Argentina during the U.S. “War on Drugs” weigh down the Argentine federal prison system and impede effective reform. These policies have contributed to an unprecedented increase in the number of incarcerated women – nearly 200 percent between 1990 and 2012.

“These women are typically low-level drug mules forced into the role by economic necessity,” said Elizabeth Brundige, executive director of the Avon Center. “The Argentine government should consider utilizing alternatives to incarceration in such cases.”

The report draws on survey data from a 2012 survey of incarcerated women, on-site visits to two prisons in Argentina and interviews with women prisoners, scholars, activists, judges and other stakeholders to identify the most crucial issues facing women prisoners. The results found that about 56 percent of women in Argentina’s federal prisons were incarcerated for drug trafficking.

The report notes that Argentina has demonstrated a willingness to develop and implement gender-specific initiatives. Two of these measures, house arrest and programs that allow children to live with their mothers in prison, are specifically designed to alleviate hardship for women with children. However, some women prisoners expressed concern that living in a prison environment would harm their children.

The report recommends reforms, including reducing drug-trafficking sentences for women at the bottom of the distribution chain and offering alternatives to incarceration; reducing the use and length of pretrial detention; and ensuring that all prisoners receive timely access to medical care. The report also encourages the United States to continue its move toward reducing or eliminating harsh punishments for drug crimes and to effect similar changes in its foreign policies toward Argentina and other countries in the region. In addition, it urges the United States and other countries to consider adopting some of the practices implemented in Argentina, such as its law that allows judges the option of house arrest for pregnant women and women with young children.

“Argentina has the opportunity to set the standard for the treatment of incarcerated women in Latin America,” said Silvia Martinez, director of the Prison Commission of the public defender’s office in Argentina.

The study was undertaken at the invitation of Justice Elena Highton de Nolasco, vice president of the Supreme Court of Argentina, who wrote its foreword. She notes: “The researchers’ report makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the causes, conditions and consequences of women’s imprisonment in Argentina. … It highlights Argentina’s good practices in the area of women in prison and identifies improvements that are still needed. This study reminds us – judges, lawyers, policy makers and citizens – that we are all accountable for the human rights of women in prison.”

Kathleen Corcoran handles media relations for the Law School.