Letters from people who need Amy Povah’s help cover her dining room table. She’s always had a lot of work at the CAN-DO foundation, a 100% voluntary organization supporting female pot prisoners and their loved ones. But these days, she has more work than ever.
According to a United Nations report published in June, the estimated number of women in prison worldwide doubled from 2000 to 2017. Globally, between 2010 and 2014, an estimated 35 percent of women in prison had been convicted for drug-related offenses, while the figure for men was 19 percent.
The United States is no exception where the federal government is under increased scrutiny for using what’s called criminal “conspiracy” to put undue pressure on women to help with investigations into male targets. In areas where spousal privilege should arguably apply, women in prison have ended up where they are for not turning in their partners, or in some cases, their sons.
With unhidden bitterness, Povah says women in prison under these circumstances are victims. In her opinion, there’s no reason these sorts of cases should reach the federal level when the possession of cannabis is typically handled by the state.
“It is too common for women to be minor, peripheral, or even unwitting participants to cannabis crimes. They get thrown into the indictment for what their husband or boyfriend is doing,” she says.
Povah ought to know. She was incarcerated because her ex-husband manufactured and trafficked MDMA or “Ecstasy” to the U.S. from Guatemala. The feds arrested her for organizing his bail money and indicted her as a co-conspirator.
President Bill Clinton eventually pardoned Povah, but not before she served nine years out of a 24-year sentence. Povah’s husband received only three years probation.
People who do not cooperate with investigations, Povah says, receive longer prison sentences sometimes than even the subjects of those investigations. “Cooperation,” she says, doesn’t mean just telling the truth, it means aiding in the arrest of other people. Povah points out that this is logically flawed as in Latino culture, women are typically not given information that would aid in the arrest of others. Yet, they can still be prosecuted for something as simple as accidentally passing along a phone message that does not mention drugs.
An employee of the FBI, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has an opposing viewpoint about these women in prison. Although he did not work on Povah’s case, he believes that the definition of “minor” involvement is subjective.
“Minor participants are still participants. Participant is the keyword. The intent is not to jam those people up,” he told Herb. “If doing something as simple as not passing on a message would have thwarted a crime, then it is not minor. The conspiracy law is not an evil tool we use to get people incarcerated. The point is to encourage cooperation.”
Povah points out, however, that this causes women—both inside and outside the United States—to become targets. According to the 2018 World Drug Report, in Latin America, drug-related offenses account for the first or second cause of incarceration among women in prison, yet only between the second and the fourth cause among men.
Povah says that, from her experience, this is because women are more vulnerable than men. Law enforcement, she says, uses this against them, but, still, many women refuse to cooperate because they don’t want to turn their families in. “They threaten women with never seeing their children again,” she says. “Sons will flip on their mothers before mothers consider turning in their sons.”
The FBI agent admitted that men are committing more drug offenses than women, but their spouses are often the key to investigations. A sentence reduction incentivizes people to flip, but such occurrences are uncommon among women in prison.
This is particularly unethical, says Povah, in marijuana cases as they typically are victimless. She wants clemency for all non-violent drug offenders and no one, she believes, should be in prison for decades because they were trying to protect a loved one.
CAN-DO has had success in helping female pot prisoners like this have their sentences reduced. Their website is full of success stories of women who are now free thanks to the organization’s efforts. But just above it, too, there’s a section of prisoners—mostly men—who have been sentenced to life for cannabis. And while there’s been a growing movement to clear the records of people convicted for crimes in states where cannabis is now legal, those efforts don’t help anyone convicted on the federal level. This includes the growing number of women in prison for “conspiracy.”