This chapter aims at discussing the historical evolution of women's criminality and imprisonment in Portugal. Though focusing on women, whenever possible a comparison with men is brought into the discussion.
Portugal is no exception to the worldwide imbalance between men and women's incarceration rates. Women have consistently been the minority among the population behind bars. Currently, as well as until the 1990s, they represent less than 6%. However, after the democratic revolution in 1974 (which decriminalised one of the main causes of women's imprisonment during the dictatorship: prostitution), this proportion rose steeply by the second half of the 1990s, up to nearly 10% by the end of the century - one of the highest rates in the European Union (EU).
In fact, during the 1990s the total population behind bars (men and women) registered an unprecedented increase, and attained the highest carceral rate per 100,000 inhabitants (145) in the EU. One of the features of this substantial change in prison population was its massive provenance from the same lowincome urban territories. As a result, co-prisoners are often neighbours, relatives or previous acquaintances, an aspect that altered the social world of the prison. This was both a consequence of selective drug control (intensive law enforcement targeting specific areas) and of the workings of the Portuguese retail drug economy (see section 4.2.3 below).
Although this change spanned both male and female prisons, it has been more concentrated - and therefore more salient - in the latter. Its prominence in women's institutions stems partly from the relative homogeneity of their population. In the 1990s, the variety of offenses behind women's imprisonment was sharply reduced. Although the population of male prisoners is also fairly homogeneous (property offenses and drug-related crimes together account for the majority of convictions), its internal distribution is more balanced than that of its female counterpart, which concentrates overwhelmingly on drug trafficking. As an example, analysed in Cunha's study documenting these shifts during the 1990s: in 1997, 46% of men were imprisoned for property offenses and 34% for drug-related crimes, as against 16% and 69% in the female case. Women are proportionally more likely to be sentenced to imprisonment for drug-related crimes than men.