The use of prison as a response to drugs has had a disproportionate negative impact on women. In Argentina, Brazil, and Costa Rica, more than 60 percent of the female prison population is incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Many of them have low levels of education, live in poverty, and are the primary caregivers of dependent persons—children, young people, the elderly, and the disabled.
Even though they bear the brunt of punitive policies, these women rarely pose a threat to society. Most are arrested for low-level yet high-risk tasks (small-scale drug distribution or transporting drugs); they become involved to overcome poverty, or at times due to coercion by a partner or relative. Their incarceration contributes little if anything to dismantling illegal drug markets or improving public security. To the contrary, prison tends to worsen the situation, further limiting their chances of finding decent and legal employment when released from prison, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty, involvement in drug markets, and incarceration.