Women who served years in Mexico's penitentiaries for non-violent crimes have banded together to call attention to others
By Christine Murray
MEXICO CITY, May 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Betty Maldonado spent more than six years in a Mexico prison for selling drugs to pay off her husband's debt - she doesn't want others to share her fate.
So she joined forces with a clutch of women - many of whom she met in jail - to launch a campaign aimed at helping hundreds of female inmates trapped in what she says is an unfair system.
The group wants case reviews for some female inmates - they say many were victims as much as perpetrators of often petty crime - and more help for them on release.
"We're raising our voice so that the penal justice system hears us...it doesn't work as it should," Maldonado, a 53-year-old mother of three, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
They also want to garner public support for the country's new amnesty law, approved by federal Congress in April but still to be passed in the country's state legislatures.
She hopes their campaign will gather steam with the law, which would allow a specific set of first-time offenders to apply to be released.
Among cases covered - non-violent robbery and drug carrying - as well as indigenous inmates who lacked an interpreter.
An estimated 600 of the nearly 11,000 women in Mexico's prisons could benefit from the law, women's justice non-profit Equis estimates, along with some 4,000 men.
Maldonado helped found Women United for Freedom, a 10-strong collective of women who have all been in prison. Members of the group have spoken in Congress backing the amnesty law, and have set up a YouTube channel, posting videos about women prisoners.
Maldonado landed in jail in 2010 as her addict husband owed money to a criminal group. They threatened her family but she could never raise enough on her factory wages so sold drugs until she was arrested in a police raid.
In prison, including the notorious Islas Marias island penitentiary, she met women locked up for crimes they did not commit or were forced into by poverty or a partner, she said.
"Most of them...didn't have the money to pay for a good lawyer," she said.
Activists now want state-level legislators to pass laws that could help many more than those covered by the already-agreed amnesty, including hundreds of women imprisoned for abortion, a crime in much of the conservative, majority-Catholic country.
NOT 'EL CHAPO'
Several members of Women United for Freedom met in prison in Mexico City, and nonprofit Equis has helped them come up with strategies and meet legislators and reporters.
Equis director Ana Pecova said the group's voices were key to securing the amnesty law, which she estimates could benefit some 600 female, federal, first-time offenders.
"To us, none of these women should be in prison," she said.
"They aren't big criminals, they aren't El Chapo, they are victims of a retrograde drug policy," said Pecova, referring to a notorious cartel boss.
The commission that will manage amnesty requests has not been set up yet, but Interior Minister Olga Sanchez told a news conference on Wednesday it would happen soon.
Women face special hardships in jail, researchers say.
They are more likely to be abandoned by families and often have to work to pay for basics inside and support children.
Former prisoners say they then suffer rejection on the outside, be it from loved ones or employers.
"In the videos, in everything we do, we make people see that we have feelings, that we made a mistake but we've already paid for it," said Margarita, 60, who served seven years for fraud.
While the amnesty law garnered headlines suggesting it would benefit women convicted of abortion, experts in the field say nobody will be released yet as those imprisoned are all held under state-level laws that are yet to be updated.
French national Natacha Lopvet, who barely spoke Spanish when she began her 10-year drug sentence, hopes the coronavirus quarantine might even alter attitudes about locking people up.
"(If) there is so much news showing that confinement can be damaging – are we going to keep putting people in prison in the same way?"
(Edited by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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