Are we addicted to prison?
We live in a world of mass incarceration. On this day on the planet, over 11 million people are behind bars. That's about the entire population of Belgium.
A relatively small fraction of these people in prison are women. They are about 700,000 today (or the entire population of Washington DC)—but their numbers are skyrocketing: +834 percent in the United States in the last 40 years, for example, with small drug-related offenses being one of the most significant drivers of global over-incarceration.
Those women involved in the illegal drug trade were, more often than not, coerced into criminal offending—or have few prospects in the legal economy. Their role in drug markets is generally low-level but high-risk, consisting largely of small-scale dealing, transporting drugs, holding drugs for dealers, or buying for someone.
Criminal organisations easily replace these women. When they get caught, their imprisonment does not disrupt trafficking—in other words, it serves no purpose in fighting organised crime.
Even if the imprisonment of women is pointless, it will have heavy consequences. Going to prison destroys lives and families. Over half of all women in prison are mothers—and that number can rise to as many as four out of five in countries such as the USA, Brazil and Thailand. Those incarcerated mothers are often heads of single-parent households, and sole providers for their families.
Incarcerated women also tend to have access to fewer services, including gender-appropriate health facilities. They have less access to vocational training opportunities that are more routinely available in correctional facilities designed for incarcerated males. In other words, women are more law-abiding, but, ironically, because of their small numbers in prison, they end up being more harshly punished than men! In addition, a high proportion of women in prison have suffered abuse and violence and/or have mental health issues, and a significant number live with HIV and/or hepatitis. Their specific needs are often ignored, revealing that gender inequality does not stop at the prison doors.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of jurisdictions set free nonviolent offenders (but here again, incarcerated women were largely disregarded). This reveals that jails could not guarantee health security for people behind bars. It also suggests they should not have been incarcerated at all.
When released from prison, women rarely receive adequate support. Their housing and employment prospects can be bleak because of their criminal records: in turn, that reinforces a cycle of exposure to violence and poverty, also impacting their children.
Even the International Narcotics Control Board, the international body in charge of drug treaty compliance, known for its conservative positions, has urged governments to consider alternatives to the punishment of women who have broken the law, including drug laws, but implementation is agonisingly slow.
For almost 60 years now, the international drug control regime has pushed governments into a pattern of punishment and incarceration that is now out of control. Too many people are in jail for non-violent offences in many countries. Increasingly severe penalties, including mandatory minimum sentences, produce grossly unfair results. This is particularly unjust and counterproductive, and has disproportionate adverse impacts on women.
How many decades of failure, marginalisation, and stigmatisation will it take, and how many families will have to be torn apart for governments to acknowledge that their approach to incarceration is harmful? ? Societies have a responsibility to treat all people humanely. Incarcerated women should not be an exception to that.
Progressive law enforcement alternatives to incarceration should begin with women who have been convicted: their small numbers make it feasible, risks are low, and societal benefits would be readily apparent.
Governments must now work on overcoming their own addiction to incarceration, and turn to humane and productive alternatives.
Louise Arbour is a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Maria Livanos Cattaui is a former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce; Helen Clark is a former Prime Minister of New Zealand; Ruth Dreifuss is a former President of Switzerland. All four are members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.