By Coletta Youngers and Nischa Pieris.Sara’s story of cycling in and out of prison has become all too familiar. At age 50, she is again serving time, a plea-bargained, seven-year sentence in the “Buen Pastor” women’s prison in San José, Costa Rica, for selling crack and attempting to bribe a police officer with the equivalent of US$3.75. When she was 13, Sara left home, fleeing sexual abuse by her uncle. She ended up living on the streets (where she has spent most of her life) and began using and then selling drugs to support herself and her habit. Sara has suffered a lifetime of abuse, poverty, violence, and incarceration. Imagine what her life could have been like if social services and other forms of government support had been the response to her situation of vulnerability, rather than prison.

Sara is not alone. The female prison population is growing worldwide. But in Latin America, women are being incarcerated in alarming numbers. While the number of men incarcerated is greater, the incarceration of women is growing at a faster pace. Extremely punitive drug laws are the driving force behind this disturbing trend. Research carried out by the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (CEDD)reveals that in Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru, more than 60% of women are behind bars for drug-related offences. In Argentina, for example, the population of women incarcerated for drug offences climbed 271% between 1989 and 2008, and 290% in Brazil between 2005 and 2013. The majority of these women are accused of or convicted of low-level, non-violent offences, yet they will spend years behind bars.

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