The Philippines has one of the most congested penal systems in the world, with over 215,000 detainees occupying space intended for a maximum capacity of only 40,000.
In March 2020, around the time the first Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in the Philippines, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) reported that 467 jails nationwide were already at 534% capacity. The prisons were only slightly better. The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) reported that 125 prisons were at 310% capacity in January 2020.
To decongest jails and prisons, the Philippine government released nearly 82,000 prisoners between March and October 2020. However, authorities refused to release, even on humanitarian grounds, 22 sickly and elderly political detainees at the height of the pandemic in April 2020. This was despite the United Nations’ call for the release of low-risk offenders, the sick, and those vulnerable to infection.
Among those who were refused release was Ge Ann Perez, 22, currently detained at Taguig City Jail Female Dormitory. She has been suffering from Hansen’s disease, which is more widely known as leprosy.
She is just one of many sick political prisoners who continue to fight for their health, safety, and freedom in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Living with Hansen’s Disease
Ge Ann’s mother, Erlinda Perez, said Ge Ann was diagnosed with the disease in April 2018 when she was still living in Cebu.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Hansen’s disease is a chronic infectious disease caused by mycobacterium leprae which mainly affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract, and the eyes.
WHO reported that, in 2020, up to 121,358 new cases of leprosy were recorded in 139 countries, while 1,150 cases were recorded in the Philippines.
Leprosy may be cured through multidrug therapy. However, untreated cases of leprosy may cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs, and eyes. The disease can be transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth during close and frequent contact.
“Ge Ann started her treatment in Cebu after she was diagnosed. She would get her monthly supply of medicine from a local city health clinic here in Cebu,” Erlinda said.
Ge Ann was six months into her treatment when she decided to leave Cebu to work as an assistant and caregiver to an ailing elderly couple in Laguna.
“I initially didn’t want to allow Ge Ann to leave because she had not finished her medication. I was worried that she might not be able to take care of herself because of her work,” Erlinda added.
To support her daughter in continuing her medication, Erlinda dutifully sent Ge Ann’s medicines every month. That changed when Ge Ann was arrested along with the elderly couple she was caring for.
Ge Ann was arrested together with National Democratic Front of the Philippines consultant and Negros spokesperson Frank Fernandez and his wife Cleofe Lagtapon in Laguna in March 2019. They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives after the authorities claimed they recovered three pistols, three magazines, 15 pieces of live ammunition, and three hand grenades from the house Frank and Cleofe were renting in Laguna.
There was no substantial progress in her case as of this writing.
Fending for herself
In January 2020, Ge Ann’s attending physician at the Philippine General Hospital confirmed her condition, which was described as “neuritis affecting the popliteal nerve on the lower left leg.”
For her treatment, Ge Ann was prescribed prednisone, a type of corticosteroid that decreases inflammation in conditions such as arthritis, skin diseases, and other immune system disorders. The downside, however, is that prednisone also weakens the immune system and increases the risk of bacterial, fungal, and viral infections like Covid-19.
With a weakened immune system, aggravated by poor jail conditions and the risk of Covid-19, Ge Ann was highly vulnerable and required special medical attention. With the implementation of lockdowns across Philippine jails and prisons, however, Ge Ann hardly received any medical assistance.
According to Ge Ann, detainees who needed special medical attention were only allowed to visit the hospital after securing a court order, and only if their cases were deemed an emergency.
Sometime in 2021, Ge Ann wanted to have the growing skin lesion on her knee checked by a medical professional. She failed to secure a court order for that purpose, however. She had not been able to consult a doctor as of this writing. She had not undergone any check-up since she finished her medication either.
“My lesions and scars are now fading, and I am off my medication, but I have not seen any doctor to have it checked, so I am not sure where I am right now in terms of recovery,” Ge Ann said.
Ge Ann added that while there was an attending nurse in jail to check on sick inmates, the routine check did not address her special needs.
Studies confirm that post-medication care is important for people with leprosy to avoid reinfection or relapse. Regular check-up is also necessary as the medicines may cause severe side effects.
Based on WHO’s technical guidelines on the management of reactions and prevention of disabilities related to the disease, patients with leprosy — especially those with cases of neuritis — need to undergo regular nerve function assessment to prevent disabilities.
Patients at risk of developing impairment need to be assessed at least every three months during their treatment, and until one year after they have finished their medication. That’s at least nine times over 24 months, according to the WHO technical guidelines.
“While I am feeling generally okay, I am worried about my health. Given my history and health condition, I know I am very vulnerable to contracting Covid. It is more worrisome that I don’t know what I will do next after my medication,” Ge Ann said.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Philippines, general access to health care services was challenging, especially for jail and prison inmates. But the uncertainty brought about by the Covid surge and lockdowns made it even more difficult for detainees.
While she worries about her condition, Ge Ann could not help but also worry for her fellow inmates. She said their constant fear of the pandemic while in jail has been both physically and mentally exhausting.
“With or without the pandemic, jails are a breeding ground for diseases. We are overcrowded, facilities are hard to keep clean, and we have limited access to health care services. We are always at risk of getting infectious diseases because of these conditions. The pandemic only made it worse,” Ge Ann said.
The BJMP reported there are about 5,019 Covid-19 cases among inmates under their watch. Since March 2020, 4,886 have recovered, and 54 have died.
“For women detainees, it is a lot more difficult,” Ge Ann said, noting that women, in general, require more care for their health.
Ge Ann also observed that there are many pregnant detainees in jail who need special care but fail to receive it because the government’s priority is pandemic response.
“We were given medicines and vitamins, but there were times we were short of supplies. Lockdowns and visit restrictions made it more difficult for us because our families and loved ones were not able to send us supplies,” Ge Ann said.
According to Ge Ann, inmates who could not get supplies from their loved ones outside resorted to doing menial jobs in jail to earn money. “They would clean and wash laundry for those who have money to pay them, just so they can meet their basic needs,” she said.
Apart from the supplies, detainees like Ge Ann also long to see and talk to their loved ones. When restrictions in jail visitations were imposed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, detainees only got to talk to their loved ones for five minutes once a week. They could barely share updates about their situation and cases, let alone exchange stories with their loved ones.
“We have e-dalaw. We are given five minutes to call our families and share quick updates. But five minutes is too short to even have a meaningful conversation,” Ge Ann said.
During PCIJ’s online interview with Ge Ann, another inmate could be heard shouting while speaking to someone online in the background.
Ge Ann disclosed that detainees often make calls at the same time. This makes it difficult for the parties to hear each other clearly. And since everyone is in a hurry to get their messages across before the call is cut off, the inmates would just shout so they can be heard.
During the series of calls PCIJ made for the interview, Ge Ann had to shout at times and repeat herself just so she could be heard.
A mother longs from a distance
In faraway Cebu, Ge Ann’s mother Erlinda bears multiple burdens as a mother who needs to care for her family in Cebu and at the same time provide support to her sick daughter in a jail in Taguig.
The impact of the pandemic has been extremely difficult for Ge Ann’s family in Cebu, as it has been for many Filipino families.
“My husband was a driver. But because of the jeepney phase-out, he was left jobless," said Erlinda. "He now drives habal-habal (motorcycle) and sometimes he does side-line jobs delivering food and other items through Maxim (a taxi ordering service in Cebu). He does multiple jobs but that is still not enough to cover our needs. His daily earnings could only buy us one kilo of rice and one dish.”
Ge Ann is the youngest of four children. All her siblings married at a young age and now have their own families. “One of my children tries to help in sending Ge Ann supplies. We help each other in providing for our own needs and for Ge Ann’s. But Ge Ann’s older brother is out of a job, so we also help him," said Erlinda.
Erlinda added that Ge Ann's detention made it even more difficult for them to cope. “When she was still in Laguna, I didn’t have to worry about providing for her needs because she can do that. Now, we must set aside a budget to send money and supplies to her in jail,” she said.
She admits she sometimes feels guilty that they cannot cover everything Ge Ann needs, especially now that her daughter is sick. “But what can we do? We don't have enough here outside,” she lamented.
Erlinda also complained about the strict policies on supplies implemented in Taguig City Jail, as it made things even more difficult for them. “We are only allowed to send supplies once a month. If you missed the scheduled date, you would have to wait for another month,” she said.
In October, they were not able to send Ge Ann her supplies because they did not have any money then. Erlinda recounted, “Ge Ann told me she no longer had any supplies there. But my husband’s father got sick at around the same time, so we had to care for him too. I tried to borrow money from people so I could send Ge Ann any amount, but I failed.”
Erlinda also noted that apart from supplies, Ge Ann would also sometimes need money for activities held inside the jail. “We sent her P1,000 so she could buy a uniform for a dance activity she joined. We don’t want her to feel isolated, so we support her participation in activities there, even if it means we have to send more money,” she said.
The last time Erlinda saw Ge Ann in person was during the last hearing of her case on March 2, 2020.
“I think about her all the time. I am worried about her condition because she has not been checked by a doctor and she has not been prescribed any medicines to counter the side effects of her medications,” Erlinda said.
While Erlinda speaks with Ge Ann often, the five minutes allotted for e-dalaw won’t suffice. “I want to talk to her and ask her about her situation, but the call would be cut off abruptly. So, she just ends up telling me what she needs. Sometimes the signal is bad, too. So, we can hardly understand each other,” she added.
As restrictions begin to ease up, Erlinda hopes to see her daughter in person soon. “I want to hug her. I want to see her Better if it’s outside jail, when she’s free,” she said.
That will have to wait for now, as Ge Ann’s case is another battle they need to win.
While authorities accuse Ge Ann of being a member of the New People’s Army and regional communications staff of the Komite Rehiyon-Negros Cebu Bohol Siquijor, Ge Ann, her family, and supporters of political prisoners assert that Ge Ann was only a caregiver and a mere “rider,” or accidental victim, in the political arrest of Frank and Cleofe.
As of September 2021, there are over 700 political prisoners or detainees in the country, according to human rights group Karapatan. Of these, 110 are sick or elderly. END