Analysis Human Rights

Inside El Salvador’s Women’s Prison: What ‘Las 17’ Face for Their Abortion-Related Charges

Kathy Bougher

Last week, Rewire met with six of the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned for what amount to pregnancy complications. The women discussed the challenges they face, including harassment from other inmates and overcrowded conditions.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

The El Salvadoran Legislative Assembly voted last month to grant a pardon to Guadalupe, one of “Las 17” imprisoned for what amounted to pregnancy complications. But 15 other women are still incarcerated on abortion-related charges, with 13 serving their sentences in Ilopango, the country’s single designated women’s prison. Last week, Rewire met with six of these women, accompanied by Ivonne Polanco, a member of the local advocacy group Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), and La Agrupación attorney Dennis Munoz.

The imprisoned women didn’t always see themselves as part of a unit, let alone the focus of a campaign for pardons that has grown to attract global attention. But on April 1, 2014, they heard about the demonstration La Agrupación held outside the prison gates to mark the beginning of the organization’s formal request for pardons on their behalf. After that, they began to identify as “Las 17”—and with that identity has come a sense of connection among the women and toward La Agrupación. All have taken part in numerous interviews with journalists, as well as with groups such as Amnesty International, which visited the prison in September 2014.

“The work of La Agrupación opens doors for us. If it weren’t for La Agrupación, we know we would all be here for 30 years,” commented Theodora, now in the eighth year of her three-decade sentence for aggravated homicide.

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Still, being identified as part of Las 17—and by extension, one of the women in jail on abortion-related charges—has its downsides. The women say that when they first entered prison, they attempted to keep secret the nature of the crime with which they had been charged. It is common, they say, for other prisoners to stigmatize, verbally harass, and sometimes physically assault women convicted of aggravated homicide in the death of a child, so they wanted to downplay their history with the justice system.

However, their trials were frequently featured on television news, which prisoners can watch. Then, the name-calling and physical threats would begin. “We have to live with these people,” reflected Theodora. “When I was first here, but before I had actually been convicted, I didn’t tell anyone why I was here, but they figured it out from the television. To protect me, the prison put me in the section for older women. … Now when I do talk with those people I tell them, ‘Only the woman herself knows what really happened. Others don’t know.’ But when there is a woman who has a baby that died, then [other prisoners] assume it was a homicide committed by the woman.”

“Sometimes we know we’re being discriminated against for the type of conviction we have,” affirmed Marina, who, at 31, has served eight of her 30 years in prison.

Guadalupe, who expects to be released within the next few weeks, described what she too called “psychological discrimination” from the other prisoners: “They call us ‘assassins’ or ‘animals,’ or they say we eat children. Several women have been beaten. Fortunately, I haven’t been.”

Two women noted that they have changed the first names they use among the other prisoners so they cannot be identified by TV news reports.

Still, things are improving—in part because Las 17 have begun to help other women facing similar struggles. Teresa, the only one of Las 17 with a 40-year sentence, notes that earlier in her prison term, she experienced much greater rejection and mistreatment than she does now. Now, she provides moral support for another woman who just entered prison on abortion-related charges, whose preliminary hearing was featured on TV news in recent days.

“I try to help her deal with the derogatory comments she started receiving once other women found out what the charges against her were,” she said.

In addition to the treatment from other inmates, Las 17—and all the women in Ilopango—must overcome the miserable conditions of their facility. All prisons in El Salvador are notoriously overcrowded, as Nelson Rauda, then-director of the National Penal System explained in a 2012 interview, in which he noted that the women’s prison was at 945 percent of capacity.

Three years prior, the Salvadoran Attorney General for the Defense of Human Rights had reported that the Women’s Prison in Ilopango population had been at 1,125 in a facility meant for 220, or about 511 percent of capacity. Notably, of those 1,125 women, only 430 had been convicted; the rest were still going through trials or appeals. In 2014, La Agrupación requested updated figures from the attorney general, but that office responded with its 2009 report.

According to the women Rewire interviewed, such overcrowding means they often wait years to have access to a bed. As Alba, who has been in prison for five years, put it, “The prison doesn’t have enough mats for those who sleep on the floor. When I first entered prison I had a mat, but they took it away, saying it was falling apart, and they were going to give me a new one. But that was years ago and I never got anything. Three of us sleep in the corner with one thin blanket.”

Newcomers sleep on the floor for years before getting a bed. Over time, a woman’s increased tenure lets her move from the crowded open floor to the space under the lower bunk, then to a lower bunk shared by two-to-four women, and eventually to a shared upper bunk.

These anecdotes confirmed the findings in the Human Rights report, which stated:

The dormitories in all the sections provide bunk beds; nevertheless, due to the overpopulation a significant number of women were found to be sleeping on mats and on the floor.  … Many … share a bed with another inmate.

And the high population numbers affect provisions too. In a 2011 letter to El Salvador’s legislative representatives, then-Human Rights ombudsman Oscar Humberto Luna emphasized, “The overcrowding of detained individuals becomes in itself an additional punishment … and brings with it … problems with … the quality and quantity of food.”

The report from the Attorney General for Human Rights further explained:

The [Human Rights] office checks regularly the food situation due to the constant complaints from the prisoners.  In this observation … it was not abundant but sufficient in proportion to the Salvadoran diet. Nevertheless, it was detected that some foods, such as the beverages, contain iodine, which was easily detected by smell.

The water from the public system … serves for consumption by the inmates and their children. They store it in plastic bottles … The inmates affirmed that the water generally comes from the tap dirty and with a bad odor.

This impression was also reinforced by the interviews from Las 17. The food “is nasty,” Alba told Rewire. “I’m thankful to God that we have food, understand that, but sometimes it’s really bad. The beans are foul and the plantains are so hard we can’t eat them.”

The women also say that shortages of water for bathing occur frequently and that the only drinking water comes from a cistern, which they say is not always clean.

Salvadoran prisons do not provide hygiene supplies such as soap, shampoo, toilet paper, and sanitary napkins, nor do they provide clothing, sheets, or towels, as the Human Rights report documented and the six women confirmed. (Prisoners do not wear uniforms.) Incarcerated women depend on family to bring them these basic personal items. In addition, family can bring in designated amounts of money so that women can make other purchases inside the prison. But for those who do not have supportive relatives who are able to make the trip to the prison to visit, life inside is much more difficult.

Theodora explained that her family, who lives several hours by bus from the prison, is very poor: “They work to eat that day, but they try to give me some money and things I need.” Her mother comes to see her once a year. That visit actually takes three days: one for travel, the second to get in the long line by 7 a.m. so that by the afternoon Theodora’s mother can get inside to have a few hours with her daughter, and the third to return home. In a country where a minimum wage income for a poor rural family can be as low as $118 a month, the $8 to $10 for bus fare and meals present a huge obstacle. Theodora’s older sister, who lives closer, does her best to meet her younger sister’s needs.

Meanwhile, Mayra, who has served 12 out of 30 years, explained that it has been a year and three months since her family visited. As with most of the women, she could provide the exact date of the last time she’d seen her loved ones. They also live in a distant part of the country, and are very poor. She depends on friends in the prison to help her with personal needs such as shampoo and clothing.

Guadalupe’s mother, for her part, tries to visit every two-to-four weeks, as her mother explained in a separate interview with Rewire on the day the legislature voted to pardon her daughter. “But first I have to go to friends and relatives and ask them to help me buy the personal items and food I need to take to Guadalupe,” she said.

Occupying one’s time inside the prison is a challenge too. The prison offers workshops and programs, and all of the women try to enroll, but it can take five-to-ten years or more to get admitted to the more desirable programs. In addition, the rules for enrolling are complicated, and some of the women believe they are discriminated against because of the nature of their convictions. The workshops are mostly pursuits such as crocheting and embroidery, cosmetology, and piñata-making.

Catholic and Protestant church groups who come to the prison also offer religious services, which many of the women Rewire met have taken advantage of. Most have also participated in the prison’s elementary and secondary education programs: Several of the women hope to join La Agrupación’s efforts as soon as they have the opportunity. Guadalupe, who entered prison with a third-grade education and has now completed high school, wants to go to college when she is released. When Polanco asked her what career she would like to study, she grinned at La Agrupación attorney Munoz. “Lawyer!” she said.

Overall, many of Las 17 continue to take solace from the efforts of the activists standing up on their behalf. As Marina put it, “Knowing that so many people are fighting for us gives me great hope.”

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