Nancy Lilia Núñez, 22, and her daughter, Claudia Marlen, 3. Ms.Núñez is in prison on a kidnapping charge.. © Katie Orlinsky

Katie Orlinsky‘s photographs, including her incredibly powerful portraits from El Cereso, the Ciudad Juárez prison, in Mexico accompany Damien Cave’s New York Times Sunday Review article Mexico’s Drug War, Feminized.


Ms. Núñez is only 22. She grew up here, in one of the world’s most crime-infested cities. But was she just hanging out with the wrong crowd, or is she a criminal deserving decades behind bars? With her case and others, this is what Mexico is struggling to figure out. The number of women incarcerated for federal crimes has grown by 400 percent since 2007, pushing the total female prison population past 10,000. No one here seems to know what to make of the spike. Clearly, the rise can partly be attributed to the long reach of drug cartels, which have expanded into organized crime, and drawn in nearly everyone they can, including women.

With 80% of the female inmates at Ciudad Juarez Prison imprisoned for narcotics related crimes, the war on drugs cartels is certainly having results – one wonders though if the results in terms of incarceration are having an effect on lessening the organised crime. A pessimistic position would suggest that these women (and their children) are easily replaced by others to be used by the cartels in identical ways.

One of the most common threads I’ve observed through photographs of female prisoners is the solidarity and sisterhood that exists in female prisons. Whether or not this truly exists is another matter, but in a world where many women are locked up because of men, in institutions usually associated with (violent) men, the notion that the majority of women are victims and only have each other is one worth pondering.

Particularly, Orlinsky’s portraits against a white prison wall are powerful introductions to the personalities of women who’ve lived lives of – and through – severe conflict. More of Orlinksky’s documentary shots can be seen at her website.


Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo
Former Prisoner, Diana Ortiz, Inspires Confidence and Healing in Female Inmates
Photography Workshop for Romanian Women Prisoners Produces 14,000 Images
Women’s Prisons in Afghanistan
Women Behind Bars: Jane Evelyn Atwood’s ‘Too Much Time’
Women Behind Bars: Vikki Law
Women Behind Bars: Silja J.A. Talvi
“Angels Without Wings” Momena Jalil
Fabio Cuttica: Colombian Prison Beauty Pageant
“It was like being in front of a mirror.” Melania Comoretto and Women Prisoners
Neelakshi Vidyalankara
Patricia Aridjis: The Black Hours / Las Horas Negras
Prison Nursery, Ohio Reformatory for Women, by Angela Shoemaker