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Towards a Gender-Responsive Jail and Prison Development: A Dialogue with the BJMP and BUCOR

On October 7, 2021, the implementing NGOs of the UN Women-led “Delivery of Women’s Legal Literacy and Access to Justice Services in the Philippines” Project (A2J Project) held a dialogue with the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) and Bureau of Corrections (BUCOR). The activity served as a platform for the project partners and their community volunteers to gain a better understanding of the roles and mandates of these pillars of criminal justice, identify areas of public interest and concern related to women’s access to justice, and discuss how civil society groups can contribute to advancing the needed prison development. BJMP was represented by Senior Supt. Flory Flores Sanchez, Deputy Director for Welfare and Development and Chairperson of the bureau’s Technical Working Group on Gender and Development (GAD). The BUCOR designated Corrections Technical Inspector Kristine Cenal, Deputy Superintendent for Reformation and Dental Officer at the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) to speak on behalf of the bureau.

Women in jails

Citing the COVID-19 pandemic as posing challenges to addressing the needs of women deprived of liberty, SSupt. Sanchez said that the BJMP, as the government agency mandated for the “humane safekeeping and development of persons deprived of liberty (PDLs)”, redirected its strategies to cope with the “new normal.” Yet it continued to keep its policies and programs responsive to the needs of female PDLs, including members of the LGBTQI.

Congestion. Of the 123,952 population in the country’s jails, 13,589 are women detained in 84 facilities of the BJMP, all of which are supervised by female wardens. Jail congestion has been a perennial problem in NCR, but this has been slowly addressed in provincial jails. In Manila City Jail, there is a proposal to construct a new dormitory for female detainees. In Quezon City, the problem of congestion has somehow improved with the building of a new structure. Until these new structures are completed, the BJMP brings some detainees to jails in other cities. Aggravating the problem is the lack of land on which to build these facilities and the limited budget to fund the construction.

Attending to women detainees’ health. To date, there are 63 pregnant PDLs receiving medical care such as regular checkups and vitamins. Cases of those needing immediate medical attention are coordinated with the local health office of the concerned local government unit. Unfortunately, not all jails have dedicated structures for pregnant PDLs, so the BJMP only separates them from the general prison population.

As of September 2021, 2,832 female PDLs in BJMP-supervised facilities (or 20% of the total female jail population) have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 5,316 received their first dose. This low vaccination rate has been attributed to the unavailability of vaccines.

While the pandemic has been recognized as impacting the mental health of women PDLs, the BJMP does not have data on the number of PDLs experiencing mental health issues or serious cases of women hurting themselves. To help minimize the sadness and anxiety experienced by women detainees, the bureau offers recreational activities and projects in partnership with the LGU.

Other gender-related programs and advocacy. As part of its compliance with GAD requirements, the BJMP established a “GAD Corner” in each custodial facility where women can go to for gender-related requests, needs, and complaints.

As with all detention facilities and prisons, face-to-face visits have stopped, placing huge emotional strain on women PDLs. The “e-dalaw” has allowed detainees to virtually communicate with their loved ones as physical visits are prohibited because of the pandemic, although this too happens at a very limited scale.

The BJMP also actively supported the passage of the Safe Spaces Act and took part in the advocacy and seminars on gender equality and women’s empowerment (GEWE) led by the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW).

Post-detention assistance. Reformation programs are implemented in partnership with NGOs such as the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation (HLAF). The programs include offering of basic education through the Alternative Learning System (ALS) and livelihood and skills development seminars through training activities by DepEd and TESDA (now conducted online because of COVID-19 restrictions).

For former detainees seeking employment, the BJMP helps in referring them to business establishments and LGU offices. Per the BJMP data, around 300 former women detainees have had subsequent contact with the criminal justice system and brought to jail again.

Women in prisons

In the BUCOR-supervised facilities, women PDLs serving a sentence of more than three years are faced with several difficulties: congestion, suspension of visitation rights due to the pandemic; mental health and emotional burden also caused by the pandemic; delay in the processing of PDL releases; and health risks posed by COVID-19.

Congestion also a problem. The CIW in Mandaluyong, which was built to accommodate 1,500 PDLs, has 3,353 inmates, representing a congestion rate of 125%. To address this, new dormitories in the minimum-security area are being constructed or existing structures, specifically in the maximum-security camp, are expanded. BUCOR has been also proposing the “regionalization” of its facilities so that female inmates need not be sent to its already overcrowded facilities in Metro Manila.

COVID-19 responses. In-person visits have been suspended in the CIW-Mandaluyong not only to slow down the spread of COVID-19 but to convert social halls, meeting places, and chapels into isolation facilities and temporary dormitories for inmates to be able to observe physical distancing. Nonetheless, family members are allowed to send food, grocery, and other personal items (through what is called the “paabot” system) and communicate with their imprisoned relative through video call (or “e-dalaw”) monitored by prison guards; the latter, however, is limited by lack of computers and gadgets as well as personnel to monitor the service. There is also a designated area where inmates can virtually consult their lawyers and attend hearings on their cases.

Prisoners from the provinces (referred to as “tawid-dagat”) are the ones with almost no chance to see their loved ones. They are nonetheless assisted by RVOs and NGOs with their personal needs such as feminine hygiene supplies.

“Reformation programs” (i.e., sports and recreation, education, moral and spiritual, livelihood, and behavior modification for those involved in substance abuse cases) have been designed to help lessen the mental and emotional burden of the pandemic.

Early release. The release of qualified PDLs is processed by the MSEC (Management, Screening, and Evaluation Committee). This body determines whether a PDL is qualified to secure an early release from jail due to good conduct time allowance (GCTA). To reduce the prison population in the CIW, the MSEC has been working to expedite the probation and parole of prison inmates. Those who actively participate in reformation programs earn “extra credits” for GCTA.

Forging partnerships. In partnership with government offices, educational institutions, and NGOs, the BUCOR provides other services to women PDLs in the CIW. The Ateneo Law Alumni Association and the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) provide free legal assistance, especially for processing the papers of elderly and ill prisoners prioritized for early parole. The PAO also extends medical assistance to PDLs needing health care. The Polytechnic University of the Philippines is BUCOR’s partner in its Behavior Modification Program and in training prison staff members on counselling, given the institution’s lack of psychologists. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) provides machines and equipment to support the Work and Livelihood Program, while the Department of Education (DEPED) and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) assist in the bureau’s Education Program. Religious volunteer organizations and NGOs are engaged in giving “moral and spiritual aid” to PDLs.

Meeting women’s specific needs. As part of promoting the rights and ensuring the welfare of women PDLs, the CIW designated a “Mother’s Ward” for pregnant and nursing women. Newborn children are allowed to stay with the mother for one year before sending them to the mother’s relatives or to a “children’s facility” where the child stays until the mother is released. There is no policy, however, that allows new mothers to bring with them their babies inside the prison. Even before the pandemic, the only means for these new mothers to have contact with their newborn was through in-person visits.

Seriously ill PDLs are given referrals, allowing them to be seen by a doctor in a government hospital. A PDL needing hospital confinement is escorted by one male and one female prison personnel, but only the latter is in close contact with the PDL to avoid issues of harassment (it was noted that all officers in charge per camp are female personnel; male personnel are assigned outside the prison facilities). Testing and monitoring of COVID-19 patients are done regularly. Most of the prison employees and inmates have been vaccinated against COVID-19. For the vaccination of the inmates, the BUCOR coordinated with the Mandaluyong City government.

Helping released inmates. To prepare inmates for their release and reintegration back into their homes and communities, the Reformation Program of the CIW includes training and seminars on mental health, personality development, psychological assessment, and livelihood. External Relations Officers monitor the situation of newly released PDLs through home visits or online communications. The CIW hands the PDLs a letter of recommendation addressed to the LGU to facilitate access to job opportunities. In some cases, the NGOs and RVOs hire the released PDLs. On the issue of recidivism, the CIW has no definite figures yet, but most of the women are involved in drug-related cases.

Possible areas for shared advocacy and engagement

Mainstreaming the Bangkok Rules and other policies aimed at protecting the rights and dignity of women deprived of liberty. During the open forum, Ms Bing Solamo, A2J Project Team Leader, shared that there are groups pushing for policy reforms that will result in improved access to justice by women. The Gabriela Women’s Party has filed the Dignity for Women Deprived of Liberty bill, which reflects some of the standards set forth in the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (also known as the Bangkok Rules). There are also proposals to amend the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 so that women committing a considerably lesser offense would not be subjected to punitive measures.

SSupt. Sanchez said that the BJMP has not thoroughly reviewed the said proposed policy and amendments to the DDA but expressed willingness to participate in discussions. She added that the Legal Office of the BJMP would be the best unit in the bureau with whom to discuss policy recommendations. The BUCOR, meanwhile, has not received information about the bill and proposed amendments, but it assured that the bureau tries its best to respond to the needs of women PDLs, particularly through the different reformation and gender-related programs.

Advocacy for efficient and speedy criminal trials. From the interviews with relatives of women in conflict with the law (WICL) in the A2J Project areas in Quezon City, Ms Elizabeth Yang of PILIPINA learned about the problem of congestion in jails. There were stories about women PDLs who had to sleep sideways because there was not enough space for all detainees to sleep comfortably. Ms Yang linked this to the overall problem of the slow and inefficient justice process. The pandemic has made it more difficult for them to consult their lawyers, if they have any, and resulted in the frequent postponement of hearings. SSupt Sanchez affirmed the observation about the snail-paced justice system, which the pandemic made even slower, but she said that improving the justice system does not fall within the bureau’s control. The BJMP, she added, can only “remind” the court about cases that need to be deliberated.

Tapping medical schools for addressing women PDLS’ health concerns. Dr Jean Lindo of Gabriela Southern Mindanao and faculty member of the Department of Community Medicine of the Davao Medical School Foundation shared the foundation’s experience in partnering with the Davao City Jail for mobilizing medicine students and attending to healthcare need of women in the Davao City Jail. Not only will such partnerships help women in the jail, it will also allow the medical schools to mainstream in the curriculum ways of effectively responding to the needs of vulnerable populations such as women PDLs.

Adequate resources for jails and prisons. SSupt Sanchez said that the BJMP manages to make do with the budget earmarked for the bureau’s operations every year. She acknowledged the support from other government agencies and NGOs that augment the resources of the BJMP. The budget allocation received by the CIW is also deemed adequate to provide the basic needs of women PDLs in the CIW, according to CTInsp. Cenal. Like in the case of the BJMP, donations from other agencies and groups—from hygiene items to construction of buildings—help fill in the gaps where needed.

On behalf of UN Women and the project partners, Dr Anna Marie Karaos of ICSI, lead NGO for the project’s research and advocacy, thanked the guests from the BJMP and BUCOR for their contribution to the discussion. She expressed hope that the group and the two bureaus can work together in terms of advocating policy reforms and scaling up existing programs and services for women PDLs. The CHR, through Atty Twyla Rubin of the Center for Women’s Human Rights and Gender Equality, also expressed her appreciation for the sharing by SSupt Sanchez and CTInsp Cenal. She looked forward to working with them, UN Women, and PHILSSA in future occasions, specifically the 18-Day Campaign to End Violence Against Women from November 25 to December 12.

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