The global female prison population continues to rise, partly due to harsh drug policies. In the second blog of our series marking the tenth anniversary of the UN Bangkok Rules, Corina Giacomello presents the findings of research on women and girls who use drugs and are detained in Mexico, and shines a light on those detained outside of formal justice institutions.
December 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of the UN Bangkok Rules. As we approach this milestone, we once again highlight the aim of the Rules to promote non-custodial alternatives to detention for women, who usually pose little danger to society, often have a history of gender-based violence and are commonly primary caregivers of children. Within this, however, one group of women and girls are often overlooked – women who use drugs that are held not just in formal justice institutions, but arbitrarily detained against their will and often ill-treated in semi-illegal, religious-driven “rehabilitation” centres.
In 2012 several UN agencies published the Joint Statement “Compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres” in which they call for the closure of compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres and the immediate release of people arbitrarily detained. However, compulsory treatment is still a reality in several regions and countries, among them Latin America. In Mexico, such places are usually referred to as barns –granjas– or anexos and provide almost all the ‘inpatient treatment’ for substance dependency available in the country. According to the National Commission Against Addiction (Comisión Nacional contra las Adicciones), in 2019 there were 2,018 private residential treatment centres, of which less then 50 per cent were reported to authorities and only 348 were certificated as providing services in compliance with national regulation. In the case of most private centres for low income people, compulsory drug treatment, arbitrary detention and systematic human rights violations are the daily routine.
In 2019 there were 2,018 private residential treatment centres, of which… only 348 were certified
In 2019, Equis Justicia para las Mujeres A.C. (Equis hereinto) carried out an advocacy-oriented research on women and girls who use drugs and are in detention, either in prison centres or in drug treatment centres. Our purpose was to listen to and give visibility to women and girls who use drugs, in order to increase knowledge and reduce stigma. Our research collected women’s testimonies on how their drug use began, which circumstances and motivations prompted it and what response they received. We interviewed 43 women and girls in a total of three female prison centres, two public and two quasi-public treatment centres and five anexos.
The findings were alarming, yet sadly unsurprising. Of 43 women and girls interviewed, 21 had been victims of sexual violence. The main perpetrators of such violence had been stepfathers, uncles and cousins. Sara, for instance, was raped between the age of 8 and 11 by her older cousins, every Sunday, after mass. Sol was living in the red-light district with her mother when she was kidnapped, raped, and forced to join a drug cartel, which trained her as an assassin. Tamara was abused by her grandfather when she was 16 years old and stabbed him to death: the response was almost two years of incarceration in a juvenile prison. In no case was the violence reported to the authorities and, when it was shared with someone, usually their mother, the main response was that they were liars or had provoked the aggression.
Drug use began mostly in pre-adolescence with alcohol and tobacco, followed by marijuana and other drugs. Dependency, however, was mostly attributed to alcohol, cocaine and heroin and, in some cases, methamphetamines. A variety of reasons are provided to explain the exploration and development of drug use: trying to fit in, to please a boyfriend, to ease the pain, to free oneself, to feel pleasure. The use of drugs acts as a coping strategy before an array of different situations.
The decision to determine the treatment as successful… is made by the drug centres’ owners
The experience of being locked up in a treatment centre happens at different stages of their lives, but is generally ignited by their families, in response to a situation they see no other solution for. Usually, people who use drugs are taken by their families and forced to enter the centre, or picked up using violence by the centre’s personnel (usually former drug users) in their house, stuck into a van and forced to stay in the centre against their will. Families pay a weekly amount for the person’s maintenance and usually are not allowed to release their relative until the treatment is considered to be over. However, the decision to determine the treatment as successful – on an abstinence-based model – is made by the drug centres’ owners themselves, who are often former drug users or religious figures, such as pastors, and clearly have an economic interest in keeping people inside.
During our visits, we witnessed and recorded through testimonies all sorts of abuse and ill-treatment: people detained are usually given rotten food, they are not allowed to wash themselves every day, have no access to education or medical attention and are often punished in humiliating ways, such as having wet, hard sand thrown at their bare back by their peers – who are compelled to do it – or being forced to wash blankets and then sleep with them while they are still wet and freezing cold. In the case of relapse – which is a normal condition in the rehabilitation process of substance dependency – they are also punished, for instance by shaving their head or sitting at the front on “the bench of relapse” during group treatment sessions. In those centres where both men and women are accepted, all communication between sexes is forbidden and punished, generally blaming girls for “provoking” the interaction. In some cases, women and girls have reported physical and sexual violence as well as psychological threats, such as “you will never see your children again”, “you are garbage”, “you are sluts” and so on.
The women in these centres have not been arrested, charged or convicted of any crime
We must remember that the women in these centres have not been arrested, charged or convicted of any crime. They have not had any contact whatsoever with the criminal justice system – and yet they are detained. They are not free to leave, since in most of these centres the doors are locked and there is barbed wire on the exterior walls. They are, in effect illegally deprived of their liberty on the basis of an agreement between their families and the owners of the centres.
Such illegal detention is currently overlooked and does not attract much attention on the international agenda. An estimated 35,000 people are held in irregular drug treatment centres in Mexico, meaning thousands of women and girls are locked in unsafe, unregulated sites. On the tenth anniversary of the UN Bangkok Rules, we must broaden our views, knowledge and awareness of the multiple conditions and places where women around the world are legally and illegally deprived of liberty.