I spent nine years in a Colombian women’s prison. This is what I learned

When I started my jail sentence in Bogotá, Colombia, it was 2008 and I was 31 with a four-year-old daughter. I was imprisoned for nine years and three months. I don’t tell people the reason I went to prison. Not for me, but for all the free women who face so many problems because of the time they spent in jail. My crime doesn’t make me the person I am.

Most women in Colombia commit crime out of a need to provide for their families. They are judged and punished without society or the justice system taking the circumstances surrounding the crime into account.

When women go to jail for the first time, most don’t know anything about prison. They have in their heads what they’ve seen in films; women have no idea what will happen to them and go into prison very scared. No one explains anything. You’re sent to the cell and it’s the other women who tell you how things work.

The food is terrible. I would get meat that looked as if it was decomposing; it smelled and looked bad. Food was often burned and juices also smelled bad. Soups were basically water. Everyone had to eat it – it was that or nothing.

The prison in Bogotá is one of the biggest in Colombia, housing 1,859 women. There is one doctor on duty during the day and another at night. Women can’t get appointments. There are lots of sick people and a lack of specialist care.

There is no one to treat gynaecological ailments. There is no one to test for cancer, or to carry out breast exams. There are so many flaws in the system in terms of reproductive and sexual health. I suffered uterine problems and used to get strong cramps and heavy bleeding. I was given ibuprofen for the pain and had to make do.

When I left prison and went to see a gynaecologist I was scolded for not seeking medical attention earlier. I had to have a hysterectomy because I had uterine fibroids that had gone untreated.

I was lucky I had work in prison and could afford sanitary towels. Other women only got 10 sanitary towels every three months. That’s not enough for one menstrual cycle. Women would cut off a bit of their mattress to use, or would make tampons with wool or thread, which can cause infections.

Many prisoners experience mental health difficulties due to being apart from their families. It is not like they stop being a mother, or a daughter, when they get to prison. It causes anxiety and depression to have these roles but be powerless to fulfil them. There are many suicide attempts and self-harm is widespread because of this.

My daughter was involved in a traffic accident and had to go to hospital. I was sent photos of her bleeding face and could do absolutely nothing but cry.

When I got out, my daughter was a teenager. In as much as I went through difficult times being denied my liberty and rights, she suffered by not having a mother.

I was scared to leave prison because I didn’t know what I would do for money. Fortunately, I was given a job by a human rights organisation because of the experience I had as an incarcerated woman and as a representative on the prison’s committee for human rights.

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Most are not so lucky. Employers usually carry out checks on people applying for jobs. If they find a criminal record, they won’t employ her.

Banks view women with criminal records as a risk and won’t let them open accounts. Doors close everywhere.

Women continue to be denied access to health services outside of prison. We have a subsidised system in Colombia, but you have to be means-tested to access it.

When women leave prison, they often go to stay with a relative. So when they are interviewed by the health service, they’re staying in a place with a bed and furniture and are seen as being above the threshold for help.

For female migrants who don’t have the right documents, the situation is even worse.

Women who manage to get informal work, at neighbourhood restaurants for example, are often abused. We have heard of cases where women have been groped and raped.

Bosses know the women would struggle to find work elsewhere. The victims do not report their employers because they need the work.

Claudia Cardona

I came to know about all these issues in 2018 when I started holding meetings for former prisoners. This was the genesis of Mujeres Libres. Now we are a group of nine women, with 600 affiliated with us.

Mujeres Libres has been campaigning about menstruation in prison. In June 2022, law 2261, which “guarantees the free, opportune and sufficient delivery of articles of menstrual hygiene for women detained in prisons” was passed. Article two states women are entitled to 10 sanitary towels every month.

In 2019, the Colombian congress, along with civil society organisations including Mujeres Libres, started working on alternative sentencing for women that would take into account their needs and seek to reduce the impact of imprisonment on dependants. On International Women’s Day, a new law was approved by the president, so women who have been sentenced for minor crimes are able to substitute a prison sentence for unpaid community service.

Women who have been in prison can make an impact, if we’re allowed. People who make decisions about us know nothing about being in prison. They make laws without listening. There are people who think we are not capable, but what we lived through in prison makes us experts by experience.

  • As told to Sarah Johnson. Claudia Cardona is director of Mujeres Libres, an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of female prisoners

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