Guest post by Marta Ruiz-García and Joaquina Castillo-Algarra, Lecturers at the Department of Sociology and Social Work, University of Huelva, Spain.

In this post, we present findings recently published in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation in an article examining the experiences of foreign-national women incarcerated in Spain. These experiences relate to prison life: problems with the Spanish language, relationships with other inmates, religion, medical care inside the prison, their role as mothers, and their understandings of the Spanish legal system, among other important aspects. Our research adopted an approach to prison studies which took issues of gender and citizenship into account. Fieldwork was conducted in nine Spanish prisons using the methodological approach of triangulation following Miguel Beltrán, as well as a visual sociology perspective as per Jacqueline Gibbons. We carried out 20 in-depth interviews with prison professionals and 69 interviews with foreign-national female prisoners.

The prisoners interviewed were nationals of 25 different countries, with Colombia, Morocco, and Romania as the most common. Regionally, these women were primarily from Latin America but also from Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Asia. The majority were young, but the ages in the sample ranged from 19 to 50 years old. All but 13 interviewees were mothers.

Two-thirds of the 69 women interviewed were incarcerated on drug-related offences. When considering the offence in relation to the country of origin, we found that all 30 women from Latin America were convicted on such grounds, as were five of the 11 interviewees from Morocco. Women from other regions were convicted for a variety of offences, of which the most common were fraud, theft, and human trafficking.

Body-painting inside a Barcelona jail in celebration of International Women’s Day (Credit: Bandia Ribeira Cendán)
Previous research by Castillo and Ruiz and Cervelló has shown that female prisoners, both Spanish and foreign-national, share the same criminal profile: crimes against public health. For foreign women, admission to prison is related to the social and geographic contexts of origin. In that respect, there’s a link between nationality and type of crime: drug trafficking is the most common conviction among women from Latin America and North Africa, particularly those from Colombia and Morocco, while newer crime profiles, such as extortion, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation, are associated with women from Eastern Europe, mainly from Romania.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that among foreign prisoners, especially those who are women, criminal offending is linked to the decision to emigrate and to the migratory process itself. Most of these women don’t have previous criminal records, and the crimes they commit can be seen as an exceptional response in order to escape from a situation of exclusion. In the past several years, female inmates from other nationalities are increasingly entering Spanish prisons: Brazilians, Bolivians, and others from Africa and Asia. They share the same criminal profile: drug trafficking, which is defined in the Spanish Penal Code as a specific type of crime against public health. These women don’t usually commit violent crimes. There are very few foreign women in prison for manslaughter, murder, or sex offences.

Through our interviews, we found that foreign-national female prisoners in Spain don’t consider themselves to be criminals. Rather, they believe that committing the crime that resulted in their incarceration was something out of the ordinary, a behavior caused by ongoing deprivation and social exclusion. Another characteristic that appears specific to foreign-national female prisoners is the fact that they’re not drug users. This stands in stark contrast with the majority of Spanish women sentenced for crimes against public health, who are habitual drug users. Foreign women may traffic drugs but as a general rule don’t consume them. The foreign-national women we interviewed internalized this difference and used it to stereotype Spanish women prisoners as ‘drug addicts’ and ‘junkies,’ drawing a clear distinction between themselves as individuals who smuggled drugs on one occasion out of necessity. Another distinguishable feature between Spanish and foreign-national female prisoners is the level of literacy and professional training, which was much lower among Spanish prisoners. Foreign-nationals were more educated and had higher levels of social skills.

A prison in Madrid (Credit: Gunnar Knechtel)
Our research also shows that for foreign-national female prisoners, their role as mothers is accentuated by their position as head of the family. In preparation for their migration to Spain, many women had already planned for and organized their separation from their family; consequently, the task of managing the family home from prison was more easily achievable in a structured and less traumatic way. These women periodically sent home the money they earned in productive work placements inside prison. The physical distance from their children was nevertheless always a cause of suffering for them.

Another feature that distinguishes foreign-national female prisoners from their Spanish counterparts is that the former are ‘first timers’ rather than re-offenders. All foreign inmates interviewed for this study were in prison for the first time, while many of the Spanish prisoners had been in prison before. Spanish inmates thus have a higher rate of recidivism, particularly amongst those convicted of drugs offences. As first-time offenders, along with other characteristics associated with their identities as foreigners (e.g., their inability to speak Spanish and/or their ignorance of the political, legal, and penal systems and possible sources of support, etc.) often meant that foreigners entering prison for the first time experienced a high level of disorientation and confusion, which made their new situation as prisoners more difficult. Spanish female prisoners, on the other hand, despite having much lower levels of education, could count on an informed knowledge of the Spanish legal and penal systems as a result of their more frequent stays in prison.

Our research shows that the increase in the female population in Spanish prisons is in fact due to the growing number of foreign-national women prisoners. Our main findings are outlined below:

  1. The criminal profiles of foreign-national women, unlike those of men, don’t usually involve violence. Foreign women are mostly charged with trafficking illegal drugs. There’s also a clear link between crime and nationality (i.e., drug trafficking in the case of Latin American women, or fraud and human trafficking in the case of Eastern European women).
  2. The demographic profiles of foreign-national and Spanish female inmates differ: for the most part, foreign women have higher educational levels, are in better physical and psychological condition, and aren't drug users. In contrast, drug use is a defining trait of Spanish female prisoners.
  3. Foreign inmates claim that there’s no racism within the prison walls, either among the inmates or in their relationships with the prison staff. This differs from their perceptions of Spanish society beyond the prison walls.
  4. Foreign-national female prisoners gave positive opinions and remarks about the prison, mostly on account of the opportunities for paid work which allowed them to succeed with the ultimate purpose of their journey to Spain: sending back remittances to their families.
  5. Foreign women’s role as mothers is especially accentuated by their position as head of the family. This is particularly true among Latin American women. Yet, for the most part, they have organized a way to take care of their families during their absence.
  6. Because foreign women inmates have a higher level of health education, they are more demanding of the medical services in prison.

Overall, the findings from our research show that the Spanish prison system has not yet adjusted to the circumstances and demands of its growing number of foreign-national female prisoners.

The full account of this research and its findings is available here.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Ruiz-García, M. and Castillo-Algarra, J. (2015) Experiences of Foreign-National Female Prisoners in Spain. Available at: (Accessed [date]).