- PhMuseum 2023 Photography Grant
Dates2017 - Ongoing
- Topics Social Issues, Contemporary Issues, Documentary
- Locations Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala
The current economic misery in Venezuela, mixed with violence and crime rooted in society, is accentuated inside the preventive detention centers. The procedural delays are separating thousands of women from their families and children for months or even years.
The plight of women in Latin American prisons is little discussed, yet it has repercussions for the entire region. The current crisis fuels crime, and violence destroys families and affects our society through how criminals are tried, crimes are investigated, and minorities are treated. A woman's incarceration does not end with her; it affects an entire generation, and women are left vulnerable and stigmatized for life.
In Venezuela, since 2017, the Ministry of Penitentiary Services has stopped transferring detainees to prisons, thus keeping them in provisional detention centers managed by the municipal police or the national police. This policy was intended to reduce the incidence of violence; however, it has resulted in significant human rights violations. "Provisional detention"
can last for years while women await trial and sentencing. Although the national police made an effort to open the first women-only detention center in 2021, most are still mixed and critically overcrowded. Female inmates receive fewer visits, but to survive the experience, they rely on outside help for emotional support and material aid to compensate for the State's inability to provide food, clothing, and medicine. In a country with permanent hyperinflation, how can the families of these women, usually often of modest means, support them? A woman in detention costs between 30$ and 60$ per week, and the Venezuelan minimum wage is 8$ dollars.
Many plead guilty to escape detention centers, hoping for a better life in state prison. In El Salvador, this hope has been further frustrated by the "emergency regime" declared in March 2022, which launched a massive crackdown on suspected gang members. As the country with the largest prison population in the world, mass arrests, some 60,000, have led to the closure of the only women-only prisons. A combination of poor policies and violent planning further marginalizes this population, which already faces deplorable conditions, living in unsanitary conditions, and limited access to basic hygiene. It accentuates the gravity of the situation, that in addition, women who undergo abortions risk long prison sentences, as do those who suffer miscarriages or obstetric emergencies.
Fed up with gang violence, most Salvadorans have applauded this palliative vision of eliminating gangs rooted in society. In a place where physical safety and economic opportunities are hard to come by, many girls and young women join gangs for protection and control over their lives and see them as a refuge from violent and abusive families.
This imbalance in the justice system is not limited to these two countries. In Guatemala, 2022 was the year of arbitrary arrests of members of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations body that, between 2014 and 2019, dismantled more than 50 corruption structures. Despite being a country where 70% of the population is indigenous, indigenous trials, corresponding to the Mayan cosmovision, based on conciliation instead of punishment (although many ends in lynchings as part of the punishment imposed), are not legitimized by the constitution of this country. Indigenous women who are not fluent in Spanish do not have a translator during state trials, so they do not understand what is happening during their process.
Yet, the most complex dimension, but common in all three countries, of this gendered prison experience is motherhood; the detention centers are not adequate for mothers to be with their children, sometimes isolated from them out of shame for them to see their living conditions. In El Salvador, the closure of the women's prison left them without a maternity ward and incommunicado with their children. In Guatemala, there is no prior psychological preparation for the separation from their children once they turn four years old. This alienated motherhood affects their children and their entire family constellation.
For these reasons, photographing and exposing the women's prison experience is an urgent political intervention in human rights.
This work in progress intends to cover every country in Latin America. With the PH Grant funding, I will go to the Caribbean Island of the Dominican Republic to cover the new government's initiatives to improve women's incarceration conditions.