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.”

Analysis Human Rights

El Salvador Bill Would Put Those Found Guilty of Abortion Behind Bars for 30 to 50 Years

Kathy Bougher

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

Abortion has been illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador since 1997, with a penalty of two to eight years in prison. Now, the right-wing ARENA Party has introduced a bill that would increase that penalty to a prison sentence of 30 to 50 years—the same as aggravated homicide.

The bill also lengthens the prison time for physicians who perform abortions to 30 to 50 years and establishes jail terms—of one to three years and six months to two years, respectively—for persons who sell or publicize abortion-causing substances.

The bill’s major sponsor, Rep. Ricardo Andrés Velásquez Parker, explained in a television interview on July 11 that this was simply an administrative matter and “shouldn’t need any further discussion.”

Since the Salvadoran Constitution recognizes “the human being from the moment of conception,” he said, it “is necessary to align the Criminal Code with this principle, and substitute the current penalty for abortion, which is two to eight years in prison, with that of aggravated homicide.”

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The bill has yet to be discussed in the Salvadoran legislature; if it were to pass, it would still have to go to the president for his signature. It could also be referred to committee, and potentially left to die.

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would worsen the criminalization of women, continue to take away options, and heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

In recent years, local feminist groups have drawn attention to “Las 17 and More,” a group of Salvadoran women who have been incarcerated with prison terms of up to 40 years after obstetrical emergencies. In 2014, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) submitted requests for pardons for 17 of the women. Each case wound its way through the legislature and other branches of government; in the end, only one woman received a pardon. Earlier this year, however, a May 2016 court decision overturned the conviction of another one of the women, Maria Teresa Rivera, vacating her 40-year sentence.

Velásquez Parker noted in his July 11 interview that he had not reviewed any of those cases. To do so was not “within his purview” and those cases have been “subjective and philosophical,” he claimed. “I am dealing with Salvadoran constitutional law.”

During a protest outside of the legislature last Thursday, Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, addressed Velásquez Parker directly, saying that his bill demonstrated an ignorance of the realities faced by women and girls in El Salvador and demanding its revocation.

“How is it possible that you do not know that last week the United Nations presented a report that shows that in our country a girl or an adolescent gives birth every 20 minutes? You should be obligated to know this. You get paid to know about this,” Herrera told him. Herrera was referring to the United Nations Population Fund and the Salvadoran Ministry of Health’s report, “Map of Pregnancies Among Girls and Adolescents in El Salvador 2015,” which also revealed that 30 percent of all births in the country were by girls ages 10 to 19.

“You say that you know nothing about women unjustly incarcerated, yet we presented to this legislature a group of requests for pardons. With what you earn, you as legislators were obligated to read and know about those,” Herrera continued, speaking about Las 17. “We are not going to discuss this proposal that you have. It is undiscussable. We demand that the ARENA party withdraw this proposed legislation.”

As part of its campaign of resistance to the proposed law, the Agrupación produced and distributed numerous videos with messages such as “They Don’t Represent Me,” which shows the names and faces of the 21 legislators who signed on to the ARENA proposal. Another video, subtitled in English, asks, “30 to 50 Years in Prison?

International groups have also joined in resisting the bill. In a pronouncement shared with legislators, the Agrupación, and the public, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Women (CLADEM) reminded the Salvadoran government of it international commitments and obligations:

[The] United Nations has recognized on repeated occasions that the total criminalization of abortion is a form of torture, that abortion is a human right when carried out with certain assumptions, and it also recommends completely decriminalizing abortion in our region.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights reiterated to the Salvadoran government its concern about the persistence of the total prohibition on abortion … [and] expressly requested that it revise its legislation.

The Committee established in March 2016 that the criminalization of abortion and any obstacles to access to abortion are discriminatory and constitute violations of women’s right to health. Given that El Salvador has ratified [the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights], the country has an obligation to comply with its provisions.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, described the proposal as “scandalous.” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, emphasized in a statement on the organization’s website, “Parliamentarians in El Salvador are playing a very dangerous game with the lives of millions of women. Banning life-saving abortions in all circumstances is atrocious but seeking to raise jail terms for women who seek an abortion or those who provide support is simply despicable.”

“Instead of continuing to criminalize women, authorities in El Salvador must repeal the outdated anti-abortion law once and for all,” Guevara-Rosas continued.

In the United States, Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-CA) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) issued a press release on July 19 condemning the proposal in El Salvador. Rep. Torres wrote, “It is terrifying to consider that, if this law passed, a Salvadoran woman who has a miscarriage could go to prison for decades or a woman who is raped and decides to undergo an abortion could be jailed for longer than the man who raped her.”

ARENA’s bill follows a campaign from May orchestrated by the right-wing Fundación Sí a la Vida (Right to Life Foundation) of El Salvador, “El Derecho a la Vida No Se Debate,” or “The Right to Life Is Not Up for Debate,” featuring misleading photos of fetuses and promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion.

The Agrupacion countered with a series of ads and vignettes that have also been applied to the fight against the bill, “The Health and Life of Women Are Well Worth a Debate.”

bien vale un debate-la salud de las mujeres

Mariana Moisa, media coordinator for the Agrupación, told Rewire that the widespread reaction to Velásquez Parker’s proposal indicates some shift in public perception around reproductive rights in the country.

“The public image around abortion is changing. These kinds of ideas and proposals don’t go through the system as easily as they once did. It used to be that a person in power made a couple of phone calls and poof—it was taken care of. Now, people see that Velásquez Parker’s insistence that his proposal doesn’t need any debate is undemocratic. People know that women are in prison because of these laws, and the public is asking more questions,” Moisa said.

At this point, it’s not certain whether ARENA, in coalition with other parties, has the votes to pass the bill, but it is clearly within the realm of possibility. As Sara Garcia, coordinator of the Agrupación, told Rewire, “We know this misogynist proposal has generated serious anger and indignation, and we are working with other groups to pressure the legislature. More and more groups are participating with declarations, images, and videos and a clear call to withdraw the proposal. Stopping this proposed law is what is most important at this point. Then we also have to expose what happens in El Salvador with the criminalization of women.”

Even though there has been extensive exposure of what activists see as the grave problems with such a law, Garcia said, “The risk is still very real that it could pass.”

News Law and Policy

Freed From a Post-Miscarriage Prison Sentence, El Salvador Woman Could Face More Time Behind Bars

Kathy Bougher

Maria Teresa Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2012 following an obstetrical complication during an unattended birth the previous year, which had resulted in the death of her fetus. On May 20, Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda overturned her conviction. Now, however, a legal threat could return her to prison.

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

Two months ago, Maria Teresa Rivera was released from a 40-year prison sentence after spending more than four years behind bars. Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2012 following an obstetrical complication during an unattended birth the previous year, which had resulted in the death of her fetus. On May 20, Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda overturned her conviction. Now, however, a legal threat could return her to prison.

Rivera is part of the group known as “Las 17,” Salvadoran women who have been unjustly convicted and imprisoned based on El Salvador’s highly restrictive anti-abortion laws.

The government-employed prosecutor in Rivera’s case, María del Carmen Elias Campos, has appealed Rogel Zepeda’s decision overturning the original 2012 conviction and allowing Rivera to return to her now-11-year-old son. If the appeal is granted, Rogel Zepeda’s decision will be reviewed by a panel of justices. An unfavorable decision at that point could lead to a new trial.

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“I just don’t understand the prosecutor’s motivation for this appeal,” Rivera told Rewire in an interview. “We are very poor, and there is no one else but me to provide income for our family.”

According to Rivera’s attorney, Victor Hugo Mata, the government tends to require “preventive imprisonment” of the accused during the trial process, which could last months or years. This “preventive imprisonment” could begin as soon as the panel approves an appeal.

Although “the law clearly allows the prosecution to appeal,” Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, told Rewire in an interview, “This appeal that questions the decision of the court that granted [Rivera] her freedom is not looking for the truth.”

Herrera pointed out that the witness for the prosecution, a government forensic specialist who performed the fetal autopsy, determined that the cause of fetal death was perinatal asphyxia. “At the trial the prosecutor’s own witness told the prosecutor that he could not accuse a person of a crime in this case of perinatal asphyxia,” Herrera recounted.

“So, if her own witness spoke against [the prosecutor] and said she was not correct, it seems to me that this appeal … is proof that the prosecutor is not seeking either justice or the truth.”

Hugo Mata explained to Rewire that the prosecutor’s appeal asserts that Judge Rogel Zepeda “did not employ the legal standard of ‘sana crítica,’ or ‘solid legal judgment’ in evaluating the evidence presented.”

Hugo Mata vigorously contests the prosecutor’s allegation, noting that the judge’s written decision went into significant legal detail on all the issues raised at the hearing. He believes that a responsible court should see that “there was nothing capricious or contradictory in his highly detailed and legally well-founded decision.”

The three-judge panel has ten working days, or until approximately July 12, to render a decision as to whether to grant the initial appeal, although such deadlines are not always rigidly observed.  If the panel does not grant the appeal, the decision to overturn the conviction will stand.

The Agrupación, including Hugo Mata, believes that the appeals panel will be swayed by knowing that the case is receiving widespread attention. As part of a campaign to bring attention to the appeal process, the Agrupación has set up an email address to which supporters can send messages letting the court know that justice for Rivera is of national and international importance.

“What most worries me is leaving my son alone again,” Rivera told Rewire. “I was forced to abandon him for four and a half years, and he suffered greatly during that time. He is just beginning to recover now, but he never wants to be apart from me. He tells me every day, ‘Mommy, you’re never going to leave me again, are you?’ I had to tell him about this appeal, but I promised him everything would be all right.”

“I was abandoned by my mother at the age of five and grew up in orphanages,” Rivera concluded. “I don’t want the same life for my son.”