A woman's life inside

Photo by Iris Gonzales.

‘Prison is no place for female offenders,’ says the chief prison officer of the Davao Prison and Penal Farm in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

On a hot September afternoon, I met Superintendent Ven Tesoro and he brought me to the Correctional Institute for Women (CIW) where more than 1,000 inmates are serving their respective prison terms. And after just a few hours inside, I began to understand why he believes that prison should not be a place for female offenders.

I met Julie, 47. She has seven children but unless they visit her, there is no way she will be able to hug or kiss them or even ask how they have been. She is serving a life sentence for possession of illegal drugs.

She said she just happened to be in the same car with the friend who was responsible for the drugs. It was one cold night, nine years ago. She recalled that fateful day with ease but her voice quivered when I asked about her children.

She gazed far away in silence. I sat beside her on her bunk bed.

Rosanna, another inmate, walked toward us to listen. Her smile faded when she heard Julie talk about her children.

Rosanna’s story is stranger than fiction. A judge sentenced her, her husband and her three sons for murder. Her husband died in jail. Like her, her three sons are still serving their sentences. She says she is innocent. She is 63. Her eyes could not conceal the pain.

Rosanna and Julie are only two of the brave and resilient women serving life terms in the CIW. The institution is different from other prison facilities in the Philippines that I’ve visited. I’ve seen a hell-like place where inmates are cramped like sardines in a rusty can and another that smells of trash and human waste.

Nestled right in the middle of 6,000 hectares of banana plantation, the CIW looks more like a university than a prison. You notice the little red flowers and green plants that surround the facility more than the piercing barbed wires.

The rooms are clean and the bunk beds are neatly arranged. There are bed curtains of different colours and designs and bundles of toys, dolls and trinkets on most of the beds. And today, the inmates have prepared a program to welcome some visitors from Manila.

Yet, as in other prison facilities, there is that same sadness and profound pain that lingers, that never goes away. There is that longing for home, a desperate wish to be able to press a reverse button, to be anywhere but here.

It is a sadness that tries to hide behind pink curtains and brown teddy bears, or life size Hello Kitties and long-haired dolls that fill the different bunk beds in this prison institution.

Tesoro, who has years of experience in running prisons, believes that imprisonment is not a responsive and effective penalty for female offenders. He believes that a female’s absence in the Filipino home could wreak havoc on the family and jeopardize the future of the children.

Instead, he believes that female offenders must be sent on community service. ‘She may be required to serve or compensate for her wrongdoing or delinquency but this should be conducted outside of institutionalization. At the end of the day, she must be at home. She must be with her loved ones. Her family should never be a part and parcel of that which she must have to pay, although in reality or in effect, it may be for her love of family that made her commit a crime—directly or indirectly,’ Tesoro says.

The women I met here have been convicted of murder, and drug dealing among other crimes. Up close, they are ordinary housewives, mothers, sisters and daughters. I am in awe of their strength and resilience, of how they struggle to survive.

And because I agree with the old Chinese proverb that women hold up half the sky, I echo Tesoro’s belief that indeed, these female offenders must be able to go home and be with their families.