First Person | One year in detention


“Changing lives, building a safer nation.” We wear this ubiquitous slogan on our shirts every day. But we do not have to be reminded by shirts, because these changes are forced on us every moment of our waking and sleeping hours.

We are more or less 80 women at any given time in this prison. Ninety percent of us are “innocent until proven guilty” but that innocence is already subjected to deprivation of liberty while waiting for the slow wheels of justice to turn. Thus, our deprived lives have to live through these changes.

Separation from family and friends is the first change that hits one upon being jailed. For the Filipina who is very family-centered, this hits hard. The permitted thirty-minute visit by family members on weekends and Tuesday to Thursday afternoons are never enough. And because families have to work, because this place is inaccessible to the routes of public transportation, some families can afford to visit only once or twice a month. That is, families from Iloilo City and nearby towns. What about families in Northern Iloilo, Southern Iloilo, Antique or Aklan? Negros or Cebu? or in Metro Manila, like mine?

The overwhelming majority here are mothers, mostly of school-age children who are suddenly thrust into the care of unprepared relatives, so they can visit only outside school hours. Children below five are not allowed to visit at all. As a senior citizen, I have been a shoulder to cry on for mothers who never get over being separated from their children, or young girls who miss their mothers. Cousins and friends have to ask permission every time from the Regional BJMP hierarchy located in another office. This, despite the Nelson Mandela that say “Prisoners shall be allowed, under necessary supervision, to communicate with their family and friends at regular intervals: [a] by corresponding in writing and using, where available, telecommunications, electronic, digital and other means, and [b] by receiving visits” (Rule 50).

The author sometime in 1994 during a protest against the U.S. bases.  (Photo from the Adora Faye de Vera’s family)

The Bangkok Rules also state that “women prisoners contact with their families, including their children, and their children’s guardian and legal representatives shall be facilitated by all reasonable means…Visits involving extended contact with children should be encouraged, where possible” (Rules 26 & 28). “The Rule emphasizes the flexibility that needs to be demonstrated by prison administrations in applying visiting rules to women prisoners, in order to safeguard against the harmful impact of separation from families and children, in view of the fact that many women are imprisoned far away from their homes. This flexibility may, for example, include extending the lengths of visits, particularly when visitors have traveled long distances to visit” (Rule 26, commentary to the Bangkok Rules, UNODC 2009).

To familiarize the uninitiated, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners was adopted by the UN more than 50 years ago and periodically updated until it was called the Nelson Mandela Rules. The Philippine government is a signatory of these Rules and the succeeding resolutions, including the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners known as the Bangkok Rules, adopted in 2010. How do these rules translate to our changing lives? These translate into: “We have no facilities. We have no budget. We have no memo from above.”

Drinking water, rules or no rules, is a basic human right. It is also a basic moral obligation as old as the Bible, or even further back to Greek fables, to give water to the thirsty. But this seems lost here where drinking water is available only to those who have money. (Nelson Mandela Rules, Rule 22- Drinking water shall be available to every prisoner wherever he or she needs it). Because drinking water, they say, can not be accommodated by our 70-peso daily food budget that provides poverty rations of lugaw, miswa or laswa paired with 1.5 kilos per week of the cheapest rice.

Another change is the loss of privacy. In a cell full of 20 more women, anyone can see or hear what the other is doing, moreso because we are, prohibited from putting curtains on our bunks. No doors can be installed in the common toilet and bath, too. Our barred windows open to the street some hundred meters away where passersby can have their fill of watching women in various sleeping positions as lights are always on. There is absolutely no private space. Our 175 cm by 78 cm bunks, where we have to fit all our things from clothes to eating utensils, are searched regularly for suspected contraband which includes ballpens. Even our own bodies are not inviolate to pat-down searches which can be implemented any time.

Correspondence, of course, is routinely checked. There was a fine when a letter from my son was withheld, and another case when a painting I did was prohibited from going out. At times, my son has to memorize whole sections of my writings just to get past the censors.

Regimentation is necessary to maintain order and security in a facility where women from different backgrounds are involuntarily thrust together in close quarters day in and day out. Quarrels arise about the simplest of things, and the guards put these down as tempers flare. So, one can never choose what time to wake up, when to go to the grounds for sunning, when to hang or collect one’s laundry, or when to cook meals. Everything is decided by the guards. Again, the Nelson Mandela Rules which list: “the prison regime should seek to minimize any differences between prison life and life at liberty that tend to lessen the responsibility of prisoners or the respect due to their dignity as human beings.

At first glance, prison can look like an equalizer of sorts because everyone wears the same regulation yellow, follows the same prison regimen of waking up at 5:00 a.m. count-off, standing in line for the succeeding six to seven count-offs during the day, and being padlocked in the same cell at the same evening curfew. But it ends there.

Since individual prisoners must obtain their own beddings, electric fans, articles of personal hygiene, snacks and drinking water, the disparities are obvious. Those from well-to-do families, aside from having more and better things, get the services of private lawyers and post bail more easily upon court approval. They get more frequent visits, telephone their families for more supplies and get faster access to doctors and medicine when they get ill. They pay poorer prisoners to do the laundry, cook meals, carry drinking water from the ground floor, and replace them in assigned tasks such as cleaning the grounds or toilet.

Jail, after all, is not exempt from society’s great divide based on economic and social status. And even here, the movement for freedom and democracy considers our situation as part of the struggle. Thus, though economically or socially disadvantaged and politically persecuted, we, political prisoners, enjoy the services of dedicated lawyers and we receive donations from persons and groups who stand in solidarity with us.

The loss of productive opportunities is life-changing for women who have been active income earners before arrest. Since cases drag on for years and years, we love not only the actual income we could have earned but opportunities for development in our work and ourselves. The jail administration offers only vocational skills training to help women’s social reintegration upon liberty. So, former teachers become embroiderers, bank clerks and nurses make doormats as potholders from strips of cloth.

On the bright side, there are some for whom prison time has been better. A handful of young people who were pasaway, drug users, or sex workers have finished their elementary and high school education through the ALS program. Some presmere who attended TESDA training now weave hablon, do mani-pedi foot spa, hair rebonding and massage, with richer prisoners and jail guards as their customers. Enterprising prisons lend money with interest or cook food to sell at special marked up prices for the captive market. Their businesses are so lucrative, they are able to save and send money to their families.

So, our lives have changed. For better, for worse, or for worst?


Long ago, perhaps even longer than any reader of this can remember, a song went “try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and grain was yellow.”

One particular thing about my December years is that I tend to remember the good more than the bad experiences. Maybe because the past has been too long and too painful, and the future too short that the pleasant memories stand out more vividly.

So, September 21, 1972, can still evoke the chilly confusion and terror when television screens went blank, radios blared but nothing but static, newsstands became eerily empty, arrested activists filled the Camp Crame grounds, and military checkpoints sprouted all over the streets. But with the chill comes the warm feeling of admiration for the daring young women and men who went from one bus to another to inform passengers about the previous night’s mass arrests, raids on the ABS-CBN and DZUP, and the shootout at the INC central office on Commonwealth Avenue. That day, spirits raging, we marched with red banners around the UP-Diliman campus to denounce Martial Law.

Before that September, plummeting standards of living, fascism, blatant corruption and an increasingly restive and awakened citizenry threatened Marcos’s ambitions for a third presidential term, and consequently, U.S. plans for the extension of one sided treaties. Not only students but workers, peasants, professionals, civil libertarians, politicians, entrepreneurs and even sections of the military were involved in general strikes, massive street and campus demonstrations, and broad civil liberties movements. A budding people’s army was poised to offer the masses an alternative road to social change. Instead of addressing the causes of unrest, however, the state’s desperate response was to close all avenues of legitimate dissent and set up a totalitarian regime.

While a dictator and his wife partied to plundered wealth, children of sacadas died of hunger and political prisoners wasted without charges in military camps. As the country’s debt ballooned, cronies went on shopping sprees or used government-guaranteed loans to buy resorts and castles abroad. The US strengthened its military bases on Philippine soil while helping the government cover up or justify blatant human rights abuses. And the military under a presidential cousin was given carte blanche to arrest, abduct, torture or kill anyone not to its liking.

Thus, families were shattered, children orphaned, whole villages massacred. A generation grew up without rights and freedoms, fed by government propaganda that this was all for the good of the country. That this was “the true, the good, and the beautiful”, that subservience to authority was all that was necessary for development.

I can no longer remember the actual pain of being raped and tortured black and blue, or the bullet smashing through my flesh and fragmenting my bones. At times, I want to push away memories of my first born when he was taken from me, not to know his real parents until sixteen years later. Or my second child living his pre-school years in prison, believing it was his home. Or my own eyes watching my friends being tortured, then taken away never to be seen again.

But then, these memories come intertwined with memories of the people’s victories, the initial gains we have achieved and have to defend for our children. Amid the pain lives the memory of the incomparable courage of thousands of youth who went deep into the urban underground or took to the hills to continue the fight, and the strength of millions of workers and peasants who welcomed them into their homes and hearts.

The dictatorship tried to deny the nation the services of our best and brightest. But the latter persevered and gave their all to the people in the struggle for freedom and democracy. The Filipino people – battered, tortured, ravaged – rose to fight and turned from being victims to victors. The dictatorship fell, and the dictator fled.

Some naive, cynical or patently revisionist characters dismiss our generation as embittered old people who cannot move on. Perhaps they are unable to remember, or refuse to acknowledge, the nation’s dark history and the Filipino’s shining moments. They are proof of the damage that Martial Law has inflicted on the Filipino psyche that once believed “ang ‘di lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay di makararating sa paroroonan”. They are constant reminders that moving forward can not be accomplished without truly understanding the past.

Today, without our even trying, shades of Martial Law haunt our lives, whipped up by pathological fascists and wanna-be dictators. Because massacres and extra-judicial killings by police and military agents continue to happen. Because the people’s right to know the truth is intentionally derailed by fake news churned out by state minions. Because almost a thousand political prisoners like me, languish in jail on trumped up charges.

I am presently imprisoned on charges of violating Presidential Decree 532, a holdover of Martial Law. This decree was conjured by the dictator way back in 1974 without congressional scrutiny but remains part of the jurisprudence of a country supposedly freed from a dictatorship. Presidential Proclamation 1981 was junked in 1984, but this decree, among others it spawned, is still in existence. After all, the Marcos Constitution of 1973 was replaced by the 1987 Constitution, but the Anti-Terror Law still managed to legalize repression.

But yes, despite the terror and machinations of present proponents of fascism, such as the NTF-ELCAC, the people’s movement continues to fight and flourish. The struggle illuminates us even here in jail. I am in prison, but I am not bitter. I am inspired.

Because – this is cliché proven by recent history – wherever there is oppression, there is struggle, and wherever there is repression, there will be resistance. Those who do not remember may find it bitter when the wheel turns.

So, as the song goes, “try to remember and if you remember, then follow, follow…”


Last month, J.A.P. was acquitted of charges of possession of illegal drugs, usually punishable by one to four years imprisonment because it was not “overgrams.” Sent off with our applause and congratulatory hugs, she went home free after eight years of waiting for the court’s decision. A week before, M.R.C. went home to her astonished nine-year-old daughter. She had been imprisoned for six years for the offence similar to J.A.P.’s. She entered a plea bargain last year even if the charges against her were only a police afterthought when she accompanied her husband to the police station.

In a lecture delivered to us by a BJMP officer, the plea bargain is the “fastest” way to get out of jail considering the flow process of justice. “If you hold on to your pride and fight it out”, the officer said, “you will be waiting for long, long years. But if you go with the plea bargain, even if you didn’t do it, you will receive the minimum sentence, shortened further by your GCTA (Good Conduct Time Allowance). More often than not, the sentence you get has been overserved by the time a decision is promulgated.”

Our prison population here is too small to represent national statistics. Or is it? Of the 20 or women who have been released since I was detained, almost half had entered plea bargains whether they were guilty or not. Most have served more than their sentences. Also, among the present prisoners, more than ten percent have been previously imprisoned.

In a year of befriending women prisoners, I have learned that many are victims of incest, rape trafficking, wife-battering, or child abuse. Many have been pressured by their partners to try drugs or deliver drugs to the latter’s contacts. Some are in prison to protect, whether by choice or force, their parents, partners, or bosses who are the real culprits.

I have heard many life stories in my long involvement with the women’s movement. But I am still saddened by these daily reminders of our situation as women, and appalled by the proportion of these victims in such a small prison population. But then, “a large number of women offenders worldwide are imprisoned for minor drug related offenses, often as a result of manipulation, coercion, or poverty.” (Commentary to the Bangkok Rules, UNODC 2010). This is not a small prison’s sob story. This is a worldwide, and national phenomenon.

So, where is the safer nation the jail system is working hard to build? Is this nation safer for the children who have to grow up without parental guidance and face the stigma of having parents in prison? Safer for the women who daily suffer violence at home, on the street, at the workplace, and in the hands of state agents because, despite so many laws, this macho culture still considers violence against women as private or trivial? Safer for us political prisoners who are presumed guilty before proving ourselves innocent, and have to bear the punishing regimen of prison life for years until acquitted from trumped-up charges? Safer for hundreds of drug users who, instead of being sent to rehab, have to spend seven to eight years in prison before the clerk of court discovers their papers buried under tons of unresolved cases?

How much safer will this nation be if plunderers, drug lords in uniform, state-sanctioned killers and torturers do not roam free or throw their weight around?

How much safer if foreign mining corporations and giant plantations do not rob us, millions of Filipinos, of our livelihood, our ancestral lands, homes and patrimony? How much safer for generations threatened by the crossfire of inter-imperialist wars because foreign troops are allowed to stay on our soil?

How much are the slogans “Changing Lives, Building a Safer Nation” on our prison uniforms worth?

Yes, Virgina, the answer is right before our eyes. We only have to look. (

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