Women in prison
Callous is the kindest word I can think of to describe people who have been asking why there’s so much fuss over the case of Reina Mae Nasino, who has been imprisoned in the Manila City Jail since November 2019, and who was given only three hours to attend the wake of her infant daughter River on Oct. 14, and another three hours for the burial on Oct. 16.
The attacks were clearly red-baiting, pointing out that Nasino is with Kadamay, an urban poor group.
At both the wake and the funeral, Nasino had to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), supposedly so she would not get infected with COVID-19, which she could then bring back to jail.
So be it then if that was the purpose of the PPE, but one has to ask: Did she have to be handcuffed all the time, the guards refusing to uncuff her so she could carry her infant before the burial?
Forty-three security forces accompanied Nasino to the funeral, several armed to the hilt. It was clearly intended as a theatrical presentation to show how “dangerous” she was. The security forces also rushed the funeral procession, forcing mourners to chase after the hearse.
Lost in all the red-baiting is the fact that our jail system and policies are among the worst in the world, and that massive reforms are needed immediately. Under President Duterte’s war on drugs, even more prisoners have been packed into already congested jails, with long waits for trials. As of last March, we had the world’s highest jail occupancy rates, according to the World Prison Brief database.
There are far fewer women than men in jails, but they need more protection because of the many risks they face. Sexual abuse comes to mind immediately, but the case of Reina and River Nasino highlights women’s vulnerability as mothers, and their children as collateral damage.
River stayed with her mother for only a month because our laws dictate that the baby has to be separated from the mother after that. Other countries allow a longer period for the child to be with the mother, but questions have been raised as well about how long children should stay in jails with their mothers.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has a handbook on women and imprisonment, listing the many issues that governments must consider in relation to women inmates. Pregnant mothers, for example, should have access to prenatal care and nutritional supplementation. I wonder if Baby River died so early because her health had been compromised even before she was born.
Early in the pandemic, there were campaigns in many countries, including the Philippines, to release from prison low-risk offenders, the sick, and the elderly. Kapatid, which spearheaded the campaign in the Philippines, also mentioned “accidental victims of political arrests.” The rationale for the appeal was the risk of COVID-19 infections in the congested jails, a fear that became reality over the last few months with outbreaks of COVID-19 in jails throughout the country, affecting not just inmates but also the guards.
Our appeal should have included pregnant women as well as new mothers. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement on May 1, 2020, calling for the release of pregnant inmates following the death of a woman inmate 28 days after giving birth.
Nasino’s case should alert our legislators to the need to fast-track penal reforms, with special attention to women. While I have focused on the situation of younger women, especially mothers, we should not forget that our prisons are also full of elderly women, many of whom were used in the drug trade. Their penalty? Life imprisonment.
The reforms should not be limited to conditions inside the jails. We need to tackle the justice system itself, with the slow processing of cases which has contributed to jails overflowing with inmates.
Note that I haven’t used “persons deprived of liberty,” the politically correct term used to refer to people in jail. I refuse to use it because I feel they are not just deprived of liberty but are abused and dehumanized. Let’s throw the term to the callous, to the crass, to use.
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