7 DECEMBER 1998
No Justice for Women Raped in Jail

by LUZ RIMBAN and CHIT BALMACEDA-GUTIERREZ

'LINDA,' a 34-year-old housemaid, probably thought the worst had already happened to her when she was accused of theft by her employer and then thrown into a cell at the Meycauayan Municipal Jail three years ago.

But on the night of December 20 1995, Jail Officer I Ronaldo Cahati-an slipped into her cell and raped her. He raped her again on Christmas eve and on other days when the other jail guards were away. Sometimes, he was armed with a handgun and kitchen knife. Always, Linda was threatened with bodily harm and rape in the hands of male prisoners.

Linda got the courage to speak of the repeated rapes only after Cahati-an was reassigned. Other inmates, all male, testified on her behalf, and the jail guard was dismissed from service. But he never had to spend a day in jail for his crime. The criminal case against him was dismissed because Linda did not have the money to pursue a lawsuit and the witnesses could no longer be found after they had been released from jail.

Lita, a mother of three who had been detained at the Baguio City Jail on charges of trafficking marijuana, did not even get that far.

Sometime in 1993, she was accompanied by Police Inspector Johnny Lachaona to visit her ailing three-month old baby. Instead, Lachaona, then the assistant jail warden, brought her to his boarding house and raped her. The abuse was repeated when he escorted Lita to a court hearing.

Months later, Lita was found unconscious in her cell, and bleeding profusely. She was brought to the Baguio General Hospital where records show that she was confined there for incomplete abortion in June 1993.

Lachaona claimed later that Lita had fabricated the whole story. But he offered a sum of money to settle the case out of court, although years later, he has yet to come up with the amount. He remains in service, and is now reportedly assigned in Kalinga.

Linda and Lita's stories are among the few recorded cases of jail rapes in the Philippines. Officials of the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG) and the Commission on Human Rights say it is impossible to determine the extent of sexual abuse of female prisoners. But, they say, the problem occurs more frequently than what has been reported and often takes place while women are under investigation or in detention awaiting trial.

A 1996 DILG survey on sexual harassment of female prisoners shows that of the 552 women inmate respondents, only 22 or four percent said they had encountered such abuse while in custody. The DILG researchers, however, noted that many of the respondents had expressed fears that any admission of abuse by their jailers may bring on additional charges or jeopardize their chances of an early release.

In fact, at least 25 more women prisoners or another six percent who would not admit to any direct knowledge of sexual abuse said they were aware that sexual harassment was happening inside prison.

Jail officials admit that having to contend with male superiors in a predominantly male institution hinders women from speaking out. Sr. Supt. Mercedes Foronda of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) reports that they are now encountering the same problems as the DILG researchers in trying to conduct the bureau's own survey on sexual harassment of female personnel. Says Foronda: "Ask them if sexual harassment exists, they will say no. But ask them when and how it happens, alam nila (they know)."

Women activists like to say that rape, sexual abuse and harassment are all about the power men wield over women. This gets magnified even more in the prison context. Inside jails, says Commissioner Mercedes Contreras of the CHR, "the conditions for the absolute control of women are there. Victims are helpless to do anything about the situation."

Sexual abuse of women prisoners is not a recent occurrence. In the martial law years, many women detained for rebellion or subversion suffered molestation, if not rape, in the hands of their military jailers.

When Corazon Aquino became president, however, there was a move to instill respect for human rights among government personnel. In the country's prison system, that change was reflected in its reorientation from one of punishment of prisoners to a more humane treatment that emphasized rehabilitation and reform.

But while some improvements have been implemented in many prisons, the changes have come slower for women inmates. At the same time, the inadequacy of present jail facilities in meeting the needs of female prisoners has become glaring as more and more women get incarcerated.

There are now some 2,546 women in jail. But while that is not even 10 percent of the total inmate population, the number of women prisoners has grown twice as fast as that of the males in the last six years. In local jails, the number of women prisoners and detainees grew by 85 percent from 1992 to 1998.

Officials and observers alike say that with facilities that can hardly accommodate more offenders, the women are getting confined in congested prisons designed for men, under the complete control and supervision of male jail officials. Such a situation leaves the women vulnerable to sexual abuse.

The conditions are said to be harshest in the district, provincial, city and municipal jails where many more women prisoners languish as they await charges, trial or conviction, or serve time for less serious crimes.

These jails are supervised by the BJMP, which runs 11 percent of all local jails. The rest are still controlled by the Philippine National Police (PNP), to be eventually transferred to the BJMP. The BJMP, however, covers the largest prisons where more than 80 percent of the more than 27,000 inmates are confined.

The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners mandates that "men and women are to be kept in separate facilities," a policy that both the PNP and the BJMP have tried to follow whenever possible. But the cells for females do not afford women inmates privacy and security from male prisoners. Says the BJMP's Foronda: "Women should really be confined separately but usually their cells are fronting males. Eh paano kung parehong ganid sila? They should be completely separate from each other."

Yet a greater danger comes from abusive prison guards and officials who enter women's quarters, disregarding internationally accepted prison guidelines, and the BJMP's own rules. Linda, for example, was the only female inmate at the Meycauayan jail and had the cell all to herself. But that did not make her safe from jail guard Cahati-an.

Rachel Ruelo, officer-in-charge of the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW), also notes that while women inmates have yet to be granted conjugal visits, comments: "It is common for newly convicted women being admitted at the CIW to be infanticipating."

The UN says that in institutions having both male and female prisoners, "the part set aside for women shall be under the authority of a woman officer who shall have custody of the keys for that section." The UN guidelines also prohibit male jail guards from entering sections for women in the absence of female jail officers.

The BJMP Operations Manual echoes these rules by mandating the handling of women inmates only by female staff. Of the BJMP staff, however, only 20 percent are women, many of whom are assigned clerical and not custodial work.

In truth, implementation of the rules has been uneven. The 1996 DILG study found some Metro Manila jails to have more than their share of women guards while others did not have any.

In huge facilities like the Manila City Jail, the study found the ratio of women guards to be one for every 10 offenders in a 24-hour period. Beyond the female guard's eight-hour shift, the women are left to male jail guards. In Valenzuela, the ratio was one woman guard for every 19 prisoners. A recent check at the Quezon City jail, meanwhile, revealed that there are only six female jail guards for the 138 women inmates there.

Foronda says the ideal ratio is one guard to every seven prisoners round-the-clock. When transporting inmates, the ratio should be one is to one.

It is no surprise, therefore, that some male jail guards apparently find little impediment to get sexual kicks from hapless female prisoners. The DILG study, for example, tells of how two women prisoners of a Metro Manila jail were taken from their cells by jail guards in the dead of night and raped at the back of the building.

According to the study, rape and attempted rape are among the most frequent forms of sexual harassment experienced by women inmates and detainees, with touching and kissing following close behind.

The abuse may take place in places other than the women's cells, adds the study, and in various stages of their detention. Sexual harassment, says the DILG study, "mostly occurred either when they were being investigated or detained." Aside from the cell itself, the abuse could take place "in the investigation room, at the back of the jail building, outside of jail premises, on the way to a court hearing."

Bukal, a nongovernmental organization involved in the welfare of sex workers, reveals that many streetwalkers in Quezon Boulevard or Cubao are taken in for vagrancy and end up being raped during interrogation. 'Lynn,' a 21-year-old Quezon City streetwalker, also says she has often given 'TY'—street parlance for free sexual services—to police officers in exchange for not being arrested.

Yet sexual abuse has occurred even at the CIW, where women are free from male jail officials. Six years ago, a top Bureau of Prisons officials took five women inmates to serve their remaining time in jail as maids in his quarters in Muntinlupa. The women complained to the CHR that the official had raped them, sometimes in the presence of his wife.

But the problem remains invisible to authorities. In a telephone interview in September, Col. Jamy Solamin, BJMP Assistant Regional Director for NCR, said, "As of this date, there is no reported incidence of jail rapes. Haka-haka lang yan (That's just conjecture). There is no proof."

Director Romeo Peña of the PNP Directorate for Investigation, for his part, says, "Rape sa babae bihira. Rape sa lalaki meron. (Females being raped are uncommon. But there are cases of men getting raped)."

The DILG study, however, says that many cases of sexual abuse of female prisoners "remain unreported mainly because of fear of authorities, of retaliation and punishment from the harassers, of being blamed, of humiliation, of shame, of not being believed."

Cases in point are those of three female inmates raped by officials in the Parañaque city jail. A relative of one of the victims had recently reported the incidents to the CHR. But when CHR personnel went to the Parañaque jail to check, no one would come forward to confirm it.

Observers say women prisoners would rather remain silent than go against male officials who hold the keys to their fate in jail. Prison officials have the power to grant or withhold simple privileges that inmates hold important, like soap, phone calls, better food, and visits from relatives.

The officials also have the power to recommend good conduct time that could reduce the inmates' sentence if they were well behaved. They can easily use these powers to blackmail women into silence.

On the other extreme, says the DILG study, some women prisoners willingly submit themselves to jail guards just so they could enjoy these privileges.

Thus, only when the women leave these male-run jails do they feel free to reveal their ordeal. That is apparently why Lita, the prisoner who was raped by the Baguio assistant jail warden, broke her silence only after she was transferred to the CIW. But as her case and that of others show, the men who committed the abuse often get away with little or no punishment.

International human rights groups say sexual abuse in jails has come to be regarded as a "victimless crime," which prison higher-ups are unwilling to prosecute because of the belief that the victim had somehow given her consent. Such a belief, still prevalent in the prison subculture, holds prisoners as inherently immoral and therefore unworthy of the just and fair treatment.

But that goes against the avowed mission of the country's prison system to reform the prisoner and prepare her for a new life outside prison walls.

The DILG study says that the only way to stop sexual abuse of women prisoners is to build facilities especially for women, and run solely by female jail officers. "Facilities for female offenders," it says, "must be really separated from male offenders, not only by cell but by distance and women should be hired to guard them."

But that is a long shot. BJMP officials say they cannot even get Congress to fund the building of jails in towns where there are none, let alone separate facilities for women.

CHR Commissioner Contreras says what can be done in the meantime is to make women a mainstream concern of the penal system. Jail guards, she says, must be made aware of women's rights and the responsibilities the penal system has over them.

That, however, would have to mean a reorientation of the BJMP/PNP mindset—for starters, perhaps a rewriting of the BJMP Operations Manual and the Bureau of Corrections' Manual of Standards and Policies.

In those documents, "females" are classified alongside "inmates with special needs" such as drug addicts, alcoholics, the mentally ill, sex deviates, suidical and escape-prone inmates. Under such a classification, women become just another aberration the penal system has to put up with.




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