In 2019, Equis Justicia para las Mujeres A.C. (Equis hereinto) carried out an advocacy-oriented research on women and girls who use drugs and are in detention, either in prison centres or in drug treatment centres. Our purpose was to listen to and give visibility to women and girls who use drugs, in order to increase knowledge and reduce stigma. Our research collected women’s testimonies on how their drug use began, which circumstances and motivations prompted it and what response they received. We interviewed 43 women and girls in a total of three female prison centres, two public and two quasi-public treatment centres and five anexos.

The experience of being locked up in a treatment centre happens at different stages of their lives, but is generally ignited by their families, in response to a situation they see no other solution for. Usually, people who use drugs are taken by their families and forced to enter the centre, or picked up using violence by the centre’s personnel (usually former drug users) in their house, stuck into a van and forced to stay in the centre against their will. Families pay a weekly amount for the person’s maintenance and usually are not allowed to release their relative until the treatment is considered to be over. However, the decision to determine the treatment as successful – on an abstinence-based model – is made by the drug centres’ owners themselves, who are often former drug users or religious figures, such as pastors, and clearly have an economic interest in keeping people inside.

During our visits, we witnessed and recorded through testimonies all sorts of abuse and ill-treatment: people detained are usually given rotten food, they are not allowed to wash themselves every day, have no access to education or medical attention and are often punished in humiliating ways, such as having wet, hard sand thrown at their bare back by their peers – who are compelled to do it – or being forced to wash blankets and then sleep with them while they are still wet and freezing cold. In the case of relapse – which is a normal condition in the rehabilitation process of substance dependency – they are also punished, for instance by shaving their head or sitting at the front on “the bench of relapse” during group treatment sessions.