More Women Behind Bars

A Global Spike in Female Prisoners

Source Ueslei Marcelino/Corbis

Why you should care

Because the female face of the war on drugs doesn’t necessarily have the milky upper-middle class complexion of Nancy Botwin or Piper Kerman .

The global war on drugs seems to be fighting some of its biggest battles behind bars. And from the look of it, those battle faces are increasingly female. 


The number of imprisoned women in Latin America in 2011, the most recent year numbers were available. 

Hardly shocking — until you pair it with 40,000, which is the number of imprisoned women there just five years earlier, according to a report from the International Drug Policy Consortium . Women make up a tiny fraction of the world’s prison population — roughly 5 percent — but the fact is, those numbers are climbing. Why? More women are going to jail for drug-related offenses. And instead of breaking the cycle by doing time, many female offenders continue to live in the shadow of drugs while in prison, building networks for transporting drugs into and out of the jails.

In the past two decades — since 1984 — female prisoners locked up on drug charges spiked 209 percent in Australia. Researchers saw the same trend, though less pronounced, in Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, Kenya, New Zealand and Kyrgyzstan. Europe, too, fell in line with the trend — with countries including Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece and the Netherlands reporting an increase in women doing time for drug-related crimes.


But the trend was most pronounced in Latin America, where women — especially indigenous women — were most likely to be in jail on drug charges. Cases in point: 89 percent of the female prison population in Nicaragua was in for drugs; and in Argentina, where women prisoners are mostly foreign (from neighboring countries), 90 percent are facing drug charges.

The researchers are quick to draw a line between harsh drug laws in Latin America and the rise in women’s imprisonment. On the other hand, women’s prison rates have been spiking globally in the past two decades – but it’s tough to entirely ignore the correlation between punitive drug laws and this spiking rate.

But why is the war on drugs warehousing more and more women? The IDPC posits that women — and often the most vulnerable among them — are easy to use and abuse as mules and non-threatening operatives. As more women try to make it on their own, researchers say, supporting entire families, the drug trade sometimes isn’t an accident but a calculated, careful career choice.

The research also suggests there could be a correlation between women in relationships and their initial entrée into the drug world. But whether they were drawn in to help a boyfriend or husband or because they were coerced or they were feeding their own habit, here’s the unavoidable conclusion: whether for love or money, there’s a wider addiction at play in the drug war — and it’s hooked an inordinate number of women. 

Nancy Botwin, main character in crime dramedy Weeds, and Piper Kerman, author of prison memoir Orange Is the New Black.


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