It was a simple informative note. The Mexican Security Secretariat acknowledged with just a few lines that from July to November eight women had died inside Cefereso 16, in Morelos, the only federal women’s prison in the country. The eight had allegedly committed suicide. In a maximum security facility, women were taking their lives. The news set off alarm bells and led the Federal Public Defender’s Office to file a complaint, but it was not a surprise. For months, the families of the inmates and human rights organizations had been warning the authorities that the conditions in the prison were unbearable: there was a lack of water and food, and what was available was in poor condition; they did not have regular access to doctors or medicines; They lived isolated, with hardly any calls or visits. The director of CEA Justicia, Ángela Guerrero, has no doubts when defining the prison: “It is a cemetery for long lives.”
Paola Yadira Silvas and her sister Esdrei Martizta were released from the Ciudad Obregón prison, in Sonora, in September of last year. They didn’t have time to notify anyone. They put them in a van to Coatlán del Río, in Morelos. After 12 years in prison, they were taken 1,700 kilometers from their family, from their judicial process, from their lawyers. They were on the road for two days, during which they were with another dozen women. “They had to keep their heads down all the time. They beat them, they couldn’t eat, nor did they give them water,” says her sister Dalia Silvas. In the middle of an empty property, Cefereso 16 was waiting for them, a mass 70 kilometers from Cuernavaca that officially holds 2,528 women.
The only federal prison for women in Mexico has multiplied its population in just two years. While in October 2021 there were 783 inmates, almost all of them imprisoned for federal crimes – related to narcotics and explosives, kidnapping or organized crime -; There are now 1,220 women in prison, according to the latest Monthly Notebook of Penitentiary Statistics. And more than half – 615 – are prosecuted under common law, for crimes such as homicide or robbery. In 2021 there were 162.
The Government has filled an almost empty prison with transfers, like that of the Silvas sisters. The official argument is the overcrowding of state centers or to guarantee security. In reality there is the case of these women from Sonora, whom the organization CEA Justicia claims were taken away when they were organizing to demand better conditions in their prison of origin. Specifically, they ended up in 16th for asking for a doctor’s office.
In this federal prison, 41% of women have no sentence. In total there are 512 women imprisoned in a maximum security prison without any judge having found them guilty of anything. “222 have been waiting for a sentence for more than nine years,” says María Ana del Valle, CEA community interaction coordinator. Many are under the figure of controversial informal preventive detention, which forces the accused to wait in jail for their judicial process, and for which Mexico has been sanctioned this year in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Food with worms, no right to shower
Getting to 16 is not easy. CEA Justicia has documented some of the mistreatment that the women of Sonora received. Some spent two weeks in isolation, with loud music, up to 17 hours in a room with the light on. “What is considered torture in international treaties,” says Del Valle. This “classification process” was brought by the families to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), which dismissed the complaint, according to the organization. The CNDH had already reported in 2017 that the women who arrived at Cefereso 16 were “objectified.”
Once inside the federal prison, women spend up to 22 hours a day inside their cell; They have the right to a 10-minute call a week, and a visit every 11 days. “They spend many days without bathing due to lack of authorization from the authority and they do not have supplies for personal hygiene or for cleaning the rooms,” compiles the CNDH. They also do not have work, cultural, sports, recreational or school activities, says the Commission: “They limit themselves to sleeping and waiting for the days to pass so they can make their scheduled phone call.” “The food has worms. My sisters get sick because the food is lost and the doctor doesn’t treat them,” Dalia Silvas tells EL PAÍS.
On September 29, that recurring complaint became a reality. A massive poisoning of more than 400 women—five of them had to be hospitalized—put the penitentiary center on the ropes. Vomiting, fever, dizziness and convulsions that were attributed to the poor condition of the food. This service had been provided by the company Foods with Idea, which also has a contract with the federal prisons of Sonora, Guanajuato, Chiapas and Coahuila. “The director of the prison changed due to the serious poisoning problem, but the company continues to operate,” says Ángela Guerrero. The Public Security Secretariat has not responded to this newspaper’s questions.
In this case, the CNDH did issue a recommendation about what happened: “The victims were denied adequate medical care and there were not enough medical personnel or medications; several of them suffered discomfort for days without action being taken to address them,” says the organization, which points out that “after carrying out an exhaustive investigation, violations of the human right to food, the right to health protection and the right to dignified treatment.”
“They are letting them die”
“My sisters are very desperate. There they are forgotten,” says Dalia Silvas, who points out resignedly: “They are letting them die.” In that conversation with this newspaper, in August, the woman already warned that there were inmates who were committing suicide. It was not the first warning.
This January, the National Diagnosis of Penitentiary Supervision placed Cefereso 16 as the prison with the most suicidal risk behaviors: 161 women. A visitor from the CNDH said: “As a consequence of the lack of attention and omitted response on the part of the authorities, many of them have chosen to self-injure their forearms and soft areas of the body: ‘They have recent injuries and have even hanged themselves ”. Of the 35 women interviewed by the commission, who had been transferred from other centers, 66% had self-harmed and 46% had tried to drown. They had severe anxiety, severe depression, feelings of hopelessness. That was the official panorama at the beginning of the year.
In March a woman committed suicide. In August, three. Another inmate in September. And two died in October.
On November 9, the Decentralized Administrative Body for Prevention and Social Readaptation, which depends on the Ministry of Security, recognized that eight women have died in recent months. The Public Defender Institute decided to start an investigation. “We saw it as a particular emergency. They are women in the custody of the State, that implies state responsibility, necessarily due to commission, omission or responsibility of guarantors,” explains lawyer Sofía de Robina, who works in the defense office: “A suicide would not limit the responsibility of the authorities.”
The federal agency decided to send a brigade of officials to the prison to interview 41 inmates whose priority history was mental health. What they found is that the majority had already filed disputes or administrative requests for the prison to guarantee them doctors and medications. Without result. They finished the day at Cefereso 16 at six in the afternoon. A while later they received the notice that that same day another woman had taken her life.
Little is known about who the victims are. The prison has not even provided the Public Defender’s Office with a list of names. The federal agency knows about the case of three of them, because they represented them. She was 29, 36 and 42 years old. They were from Morelos, Guanajuato and Mexico City. Her lawyer had just visited one of them and asked her to change modules. Another had won a controversy so that the prison would start giving her the medications she needed. The last one had been in prison for years, with a sentence, the institute had begun to represent her because she had attempted suicide, in which she hit the guard who tried to prevent her from taking her life, they opened a procedure for injuries to a federal official .
All three took their own lives. The Ombudsman’s Office has filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office for their cases, they have asked that cameras and records be investigated, that responsibilities be raised up the ladder. In addition, they have filed an injunction against the health omissions experienced by women in prison. “They are in such a serious condition, in a stormy environment, that they constitute a risk to life,” explains Sofía de Robina, the judge has decided in an urgent action, while it is resolved, that they have to receive care and medication.
What is behind this emergency? For the CNDH there is one main cause: transfers. The commission considers that these massive movements between prisons violate the rights of the inmates, among other things, because they hinder their defense in trials and because they prevent contact with their families and that makes it more difficult for them to later reintegrate. María Ana del Valle points out along the same lines: “These suicides are not an isolated event. It is a reflection of the conditions of abuse, of human rights violations that these women experience, who have not been properly attended to for years.”
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