Women who are deprived of liberty

  Image: Christian Bardenhorst

Image: Christian Bardenhorst

Imagine having your liberty taken away from you. Imagine you are promised a great reward for a risky task. You would never think you are the one who will get caught – it’s always the others. And then it’s you; getting caught breaking the law, with no reward and behind bars. Your future is suddenly in the hands of the penitentiary system and you have to prove yourself to regain your freedom and be accepted back into society.

Liberty is defined as ‘the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behaviour, or political views’ and ‘the power or scope to act as one pleases’.

According to Maria Elena Alfaro, director of ARED (Associació per a la Reinserció de Dones), a Spanish foundation that helps women during their rehabilitation process after being in prison, being in jail equals to being deprived of all liberty and being excluded from all decision-making. But how does this deprivation affect women who have been in jail once they get out?

In Spain, more than 5000 women were in prison in 2014. This represents a 7.6% of the prisoner population of the country and the highest percentage in Europe, where the average is 5.3%.

What do the women incarcerated in the prison of Brians in Barcelona (Spain) face when they get their liberty back? What resources do they have? What are the chances of them going back to prison? How do they feel about returning to a society that put them behind bars?

To understand this, it is important to understand their background and the reasons why they were deprived of their liberty in the first place. In most cases, they were deprived of liberty and decision-making long before they ended up in jail.


'In most cases, women were deprived of liberty long before they ended up in jail.'


The female prisoner population in Spain is predominantly made up of women from large family groups who have suffered from abusive relationships and conflict. The women often live in poor conditions, in crowded households and below the poverty line. In most cases, they have more than one family member with a criminal record or drug addiction (Marta Medina, El Confidencial, ‘Mujeres en la cárcel: historias sobre violencia, machismo y los orígenes del mal’, 2017). ‘Crimes are perpetrated on family members by women who have suffered abuse or violence within their household,’ as Margarita Aguilera, lawyer of Acope (Asociación de colaboradores con las mujeres presas), an association of collaborators who work with imprisoned women, explains. In terms of education, the number of women in prison with basic levels of training and education is very low and most of them abandoned school at a very young age (Marta Medina).

The path to prison

Poor level of education can lead to wrong decision-making. A research paper from 2014 features an interview with a 62-year-old woman called Romualda, who served more than ten years in prison. She now works for ARED, where she is in charge of cleaning and cooking. Her life has been tainted by her social environment, which led her to cross the limits of legality to survive. She is one of 14 children and it was difficult for her parents to feed the whole family. With no education or training, most of her siblings started working illegally, selling goods on the streets. Often the police would requisition their goods and leave them with nothing to sell and a new investment to make when they had no money available. At the age of 14, Romualda was married and pregnant. Shortly after getting married, she was living in a house with no electricity or running water and having to feed two children. It was then that she decided to start selling drugs. ‘I didn’t sell drugs to become rich, buy jewellery or flats. I sold small amounts so we could eat every day,’ she explains. Romualda sold enough to feed and provide an education for her six children for 30 years, but then she got caught (Esther Oliver Alejos, “Reinserció sociolaboral de les dones privades de llibertat: problemàtica social, laboral i relacional", 2014).

In prison, she felt misunderstood and confused. Her family’s situation got worse: her husband fell ill and died, her son became addicted to drugs, and one of her daughters became pregnant and was later abandoned by her partner. Her husband’s funeral hit Romualda very hard as she felt her family was falling apart and couldn't be by her children’s side when they most needed her. Romualda felt responsible for her son’s drug addiction as she herself had been selling drugs for a living.

Having hit rock bottom, she managed to get special permission to get out of prison to visit her family and through good behaviour, she shortened her sentence from three years to half the time (Esther Oliver Alejos).

Life out of prison

Women who have been to prison can access very few resources on their release. Most of them lacked training or formal education when they went to prison and received very little or very basic training while serving their sentence. The training offered is short in duration and generally limited to the tasks they have to perform while in prison, so manual and assembling tasks. For those serving long sentences, the training is longer and involves winding and wiring (Francesc Gisbert, et al, ‘Trabajar en Prisión’, 2007). Foundations aid men and women who are, or who have been, in prison, by offering training and jobs. ARED offers training in industrial confectionery, cooking, baking, house assistance and geriatric care, providing ex-prisoners with official titles, and also jobs with the foundation maintaining the facilities and helping in their kitchen or sewing workshop. Although a job is definitely a good place to start, these women need more than this. The ARED Foundation works with a lot of women who have been in the prison of Brians. While serving their sentence they can get special permission to go to training sessions and work at the foundation on certain days. This is a way for them to start their rehabilitation, getting to move around, find their way to the foundation using public transport and interacting with people outside of prison.

Maria Elena Alfaro says that the average training and reintegration period is a year and a half. ‘They come from not being able to take notes to taking orders in a bar after our training,’ she explains.

Women who have been in prison in Spain also need medical guidance when they are released. With a fully functioning public healthcare system, it’s essential for these women to understand how it works and how it could help them at any stage. An important issue is resolving any drug or alcohol issue before continuing with the process of rehabilitation. It’s very difficult for someone who has been in prison and is trying to get back into society to do so successfully when they have an addiction that could change their behaviour and lead them to break the law again. Many organisations provide guidance to resolve drug and alcohol issues, such as FAD (Fundación de Ayuda contra la Drogadicción – Foundation to aid with drug addiction), FAS (Fundació Autònoma Solidària – Solidary Autonomous Foundation) or FCAR (Federació Catalana d’Associacions d’Alcohòlics Rehabilitats – Catalan Federation of Associations of Rehabilitated Alcoholics).

Another issue is housing. After their release, women usually end up in dormitories or shared flats provided by organisations like ARED. These organisations also provide essential items, such as clothing, food or furniture if they are moving into a new flat. The reason for providing these basics is to prevent them from feeling that they need to find 20 euros to buy essential items, and from, perhaps, seeking an income illegally, which could take them back to prison.

Although prison is supposed to work towards the rehabilitation of these women, it is through other external organisations that this is achieved and mostly through professional training, although developing personal competencies is as important. For women who have been deprived of liberty and lived a life tainted by their stay in prison, getting out is a mammoth challenge. Going back into society and a legal system that put them behind bars means they have to start from zero. Not only do they need a home, essential items, food and, above all, new relationships, but they also need a job to be self-sufficient again. And they face the labour market with a bad record. There are not enough organisations that would employ them and, certainly, there are not enough companies that would look beyond their stay in prison to give them an opportunity to thrive.