The Ghost Children of Latin America’s Prisons

Por Zahrah Latif

Rosa is in jail with her daughter at the Santa Martha prison in Mexico City. Photo: Oswaldo Ramirez /

HAVANA TIMES – Latin American prisons are notorious for being overcrowded, dangerous places where inmates are not immune to the crimes they themselves perpetrated on the outside.

In recent years, a light has been cast on the problem of women’s incarceration in the region, as it is a rapidly growing trend, and gender-focused studies underline economic marginalization and harsh national and international drug policies as the main reasons for this.

However, while women may have been “invisible” in Latin America’s penitentiary systems and statistics, the children who are born and live with their imprisoned mothers are ghosts, lost in the background of a cell that was never theirs to begin with.

The vast majority of women in Latin American prisons serve time for non-violent drug-related crimes, and 87% of these incarcerated women are mothers. This means that when a woman is sentenced to prison, she may not only be leaving older children behind – without maternal affection and care which can leave serious emotional and psycho-sociological scars-, but she may also be giving birth to or raising a baby/toddler behind bars with her.

According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank published in 2018,[1] roughly 10% of all female inmates in the region have their child living with them in correctional facilities. The study also found that the majority of these women were adolescent and single mothers, proving that the War on Drugs pushed by the US, as well as heavy prison sentences for non-violent drug-related crime, are hurting the most vulnerable in society.[2] These women’s children are the collateral damage, and governments and policy-makers fail to see them.

Yet some individuals have been able to tap into their sixth sense, including Saskia Niño de Rivera, founder and director of Reinserta, a Mexican organisation that works to help ensure children born and living in prison with their mothers can fully develop in these early transformative years.

According to the organisation’s website, some of the issues that might hinder this process include children not having a lot of social contact with other children as they have to stay with their mothers, having to stay with their mothers even when there are conjugal visits, witnessing violent acts, living in an oppressive atmosphere, and having to deal with the trauma of leaving their mothers once they turn three years old.

Meanwhile, progressive laws in countries like Brazil, mean that a woman who is either pregnant or has children, can be held under house arrest for non-violent crimes instead of in pretrial detention. However, judges are reluctant to give women these sentences because of reigning conservative attitudes that women who commit crime are “bad mothers”.

Human Rights Watch reported that since the new law was passed in 2018, less than a third of women eligible for house arrest had been released from pretrial detention, and more than 6000 mothers were still behind bars.[3]  Translation: more than 6000 children were left without their primary caretaker, even though the law was passed and put into effect by Brazil’s Supreme Court to ensure and protect the superior interest of the child and the child’s right to a family.

Nevertheless, the contention that these women are “bad mothers”, has been refuted by many studies that pin a woman’s main motivation for committing a crime to financially providing for her family.

Gretchen Cloutier discusses the feminisation of poverty in the region and how low-level mule work is an option that many women get roped into by male partners or family members.[4] She also refers to the fact that many women are unaware of the legal consequences of their actions and are misled into carrying superior quantities of product. Having a family is the driving force for Latin American women to commit crime, and not a deterrent like it is for their male counterparts.

But one thing remains clear. While governments and policy-makers continue to insist on tough sentences for micro-scale drug trafficking and possession – which most female inmates are charged with, thousands of children are left without their sole or primary caregiver, and others are forced to spend their early years at their mother’s bosom in a prison cell.

It is no longer a matter of Latin American penitentiary systems having to uphold basic human rights for their inmates, they also need to be able to guarantee children’s rights, but in a region where countries such as Mexico and Colombia, lack even correctional facilities that are exclusive to women, this is not far off from being a dream.