Society Pregnant and imprisoned: reality of pregnant women in Brazilian prisons is marked by torture and violence

Prisoner with baby in the Women's Penitentiary of the Federal District (Colmeia) (Luiz Silveira/Agência CNJ)

Gabriella Lira – from Cenarium

MANAUS – The realization of the dream of motherhood in the lives of female prisoners in Brazil exposes cases of physical and psychological abuse, in addition to the lack of access to quality medical care. In September this year, inmates at the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Maternity Unit (UMI), in Rio de Janeiro, gave birth handcuffed. Cases like these are common and some still submit to sterilization surgery without consent, according to the State Mechanism for the Prevention and Combat of Torture of Rio de Janeiro (MEPCT/RJ). 

The year 2016 was marked by decrees and laws to protect incarcerated pregnant women. The Legal Framework for Early Childhood, for example, requires the model of home detention for women provisionally imprisoned when pregnant, mothers of children up to 12 years old, or whose children are Persons with Disabilities (PCD). 

In Rio de Janeiro, a law prohibits the use of handcuffs, calcetas – the ring placed on a prisoner’s ankle that attaches to his or her waist by means of an iron chain connecting him or her in turn to another prisoner – or other means of physical restraint during the prisoner’s labor, whether in public or private health care facilities. 

For sociologist and Amazonas Federal University (Ufam) professor Luiz Nascimento who, in 2007/2008, guided a research project in which women from the Amazonas prison system were interviewed, the problem affects the dignity of these women who are already in a difficult situation.

“Who carries out the imprisonment of these women? They are men, police officers and delegates, with no commitment to education, to children and to women. So, for these men, to treat with equality would be to use the same cruelty of men to apply to women”, he says.

“I have heard from jailers and prison guards that ‘if women want equality, then they will be treated equally. It’s a cruelty to the child that will be born. Where are we going with this? What kind of society are we building? Young women are forced to have their children in prison. Don’t they have other ways, strategies to compensate for the crime they have committed?”, says the sociologist.

In Rio de Janeiro, a law prohibits the use of handcuffs, panties or other means of physical restraint during a prisoner’s labor (Luiz Silveira/Agência CNJ)

Case motivates law

The story of Jéssica Monteiro, who, in 2016, was 24 years old and 9 months pregnant when she was charged with drug trafficking after the Military Police (PM) of São Paulo raided the occupation where she lived and found 90 grams of marijuana, motivated a historic decision by the Federal Supreme Court (STF) to issue a habeas corpus for all provisional detainees in the country who are pregnant, are in labor, in the path between the prison unit and the hospital, after delivery, or while the pregnant woman is hospitalized.

Jéssica went into labor at the police station. In the same early morning she was taken to the hospital and then returned to the dirty cell, along with newborn Enrico. 

“I was arrested on Saturday, still pregnant. When I arrived at the police station, I was already in pain. I slept there, on the floor. With the nervousness of being in that place, in the stench, with bugs, it only got worse. I ended up going into labor with him. They asked me to calm down, not to have a baby at that time”, says Jéssica in an interview to Brasil de Fato website. 

The story of nine-month pregnant 24-year-old Jessica Monteiro prompted a historical decision by the Supreme Court (STF). (Archive/Agência Brasil)


In the research conducted by professor Luiz Nascimento, it was found that 90% of the women who were arrested for trafficking were not actually involved in the crime: they were arrested carrying a small amount of drugs.

“The police authority (policemen and delegates) needs to know how to identify consumption from trafficking. The person who has a marijuana cigarette in his pocket doesn’t mean that he is a drug dealer. If the police authorities act in this context, a large number of people will be arrested and charged for traffic”, explains Luiz.

The sociologist also points out that another important issue is that part of these women have entered the world of drugs for lack of options, because they don’t have jobs or other opportunities to develop themselves.

“I am not saying that they don’t need to be charged, but we have a process of incarceration in Brazil that is absurd, that does not reduce violence, does not reduce the practice of crime or the illegal drug trade, and even increases social inequality and the abuse of authority”, he says. 

The crime of drug trafficking is foreseen in article 33 of Law 11.343/2006, which describes as illegal conduct, prohibiting any kind of production, sale, and purchase of drugs without authorization or in violation of the law. The penalty is five to 15 years in prison and a fine of 500 to 1,500 days fine. The same law, in article 28, establishes the illicit conduct of carrying drugs for personal consumption. However, this is considered a less serious offense, and is not punishable by detention or imprisonment. 


The most recent data from the National Penitentiary Department of the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety indicate that in the period from July to December 2020, Brazil had 668,135 thousand prisoners, 28,688 of whom (4.29%) were women. In all, in this period, there were 156 pregnant and parturient women, 76 nursing mothers, and 502 children with their mothers. 

National Survey of Penitentiary Information – Period from July to December 2020 –
MATERNITY (Art: Ygor Fábio Barbosa)
Composition of the Population by Color/Race in the Prison System – Period from July to December 2020. (Art: Ygor Fábio Barbosa)