Welcome to the Women-Friendly Jail

It's a jail, but there are no cells in the Davao City Female Jail in the Philippines.  / Credit:Ana Santos/IPS
It’s a jail, but there are no cells in the Davao City Female Jail in the Philippines.
Philippines, Nov 24 , 2010 (IPS) – “I was shocked when I saw them,” says 18-year-old detainee Chona (not her real name) of the first time she saw the duplex-style bungalows painted in pastel colours that make up her ‘home’.

There are windows to let sunlight into the bungalows and a veranda where the women residents can chat with each other while watering the plants. Others sit in the shaded part of the garden crocheting or sewing.

Here in the Davao City Female Jail in the southern Philippines, called the Ray of Hope Village, there are no cells.

“This is even nicer than my own home,” explains Chona, who has been charged with possession of illegal drugs and has been in the jail for more than eight months. She is one of the 131 women detainees awaiting sentencing, a process that can take years in the Philippines’ slow justice system.

During the day, the women are free to move about the 5,400 square-metre jail compound, doing livelihood projects. In the afternoon, they can receive visitors. At night, they retire to their bungalows.

Each of the 20 bungalows has its own bathroom and its windows are covered with mosquito screens. About 11 to 13 women share one bungalow, sleeping on mats.

“We had to do away with mattresses because of bed bugs,” explains the chief of the health service unit Jasmine Baclay, who says that this attention to detail has greatly decreased the incidence of ailments among the detainees. “We are one of the few jails where there are zero tuberculosis cases.”

Because 93 percent of the detainees are mothers, there is also a breastfeeding room that also doubles as a child visitation area. Children aged zero to 15 years old can stay overnight with their mothers.

“The visits are scheduled, but this allows the detainees to be mothers even while in detention,” says Grace Taculin, chief inspector of the Davao City Female Jail.

“They (the detainees) are not afraid that their children will be traumatised by seeing their mothers in jail,” Taculin says in an interview. “The children are also not afraid to come here; there is a lot of space to run around.”

The conditions in the Ray of Hope Village have made a great impact on quality of life and the overall disposition of its women detainees.

“The crochet needles, the pots and the stones that are in the garden would be considered contraband in other jails. But we have had no problem with fighting (among detainees),” Taculin points out. “A lot of these women are not hardened criminals. Most of them are here because of theft or drug pushing. When you ask them about it, they will tell you that they needed to do it to make money and support their children.”

Majority of the compound’s 131 detainees – 98 – are charged with drug possession or trafficking, which could merit up to six years in jail. Some end up staying in detention almost as long, awaiting sentencing by the courts.

Fifteen detainees are charged with estafa or issuing bouncing checks, 13 with robbery or theft, three with homicide and two with murder.

“You cannot post bail for most of the violations of the drug trafficking law. Even if bail is an option, it is not something these women can afford,” explains Baclay. Bail for possession of drug paraphernalia is at steep 200,000 pesos (4,400 U.S. dollars).

The novel approach to Ray of Hope came about from a realisation of the uncertainty in the women’s lives while waiting for sentencing as well as their everyday needs as mothers, on top of overcrowding in the standard jails.

“Most of the detainees are forced to stay in jail because they cannot afford to make bail. So they are literally rotting in jail,” remarks Adoracion Avisado, a former judge who is now executive director of the non-government group called Transformative Justice Institute (TJI). TJI was involved in setting up the Ray of Hope Village.

Before the female detainees were transferred to the Ray of Hope Village in March 2007, they were in the old Davao City Female Jail. Thirty to 40 women often shared one cell and one toilet. At times, four detainees shared one bunk bed.

They were housed in the same complex at the men’s jail, which was also overcrowded. “The carrying capacity of the men’s jail is 300 to 350, but you have about 1,000 inmates there,” explains Avisado.

According to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), the country’s jail population stands at 60,423 but ideal capacity, based on cell area, is only 20,072. At this rate, congestion in Philippine jails would be at 292 percent.

“How can you expect to rehabilitate someone under such inhuman conditions? Women have different detention needs, as women and as mothers,” said Avisado.

Davao City was the first to pass a Women’s Development Code in 1997, an ordinance that helped them get the support to put up the Ray of Hope Village.

“We could not let these women – mostly mothers – stay in such conditions. Family members were ashamed to visit them and they were separated from their children. It went against the objective of restorative justice and rehabilitation,” said Avisado.

Support from non-government groups, commercial and private institutions helped put together the 7.2 million pesos (160,000 dollars) needed to put up the women-friendly detention centre.

Forty-six year-old Christina Lim, who has been waiting four years for sentencing related to charges of using crack cocaine, says of the old jail: “It was so cramped. There was hardly any space to move around or even breathe. We were so irritable and would pick a fight with the other women for any small thing.”

She has been making twine bags and makes 150 pesos (3.50 dollars) for each bag she makes, using the income to help support her five children. “I like the ambience here, but I still dream of being released. I might as well do something productive and make the most of my stay here,” Lim says.

“The village and community set up of Ray of Hope do not make the women feel like they are locked up, Abraham Abella, officer-in-charge and regional director for BJMP tells IPS. “This, along with the news skills they are able to acquire through livelihood projects, equips them to be reintegrated into society once they are released.”

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