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Women behind bars find peace and

hope
BETWEEN EAST & WEST By Tonette Martel (The Philippine Star) | Updated July 1, 2012 - 12:00am

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Women weave hope as they transform newsprint into baskets at the Correctional Institute for Women in
Mandaluyong.

While having a late snack with a friend one afternoon, I was drawn to the small beaded bag she brought
along. Her bag was fashioned from plastic beads playful and luminous in appeal, it was the sort of thing
that lends a touch of whimsy to daywear or informal eveningwear. To my amazement, Ging told me that her
bag and many of the same kind are all handmade by the inmates of the Correctional Institution for Women
in Mandaluyong. Ging Pajaro, who owns the four-decades-old Via Venetto shoe stores, carries a limited
selection of these beaded beauties. She tells me that Japanese tourists have been snapping them up and
inquiring as to where they can order more of these items to take back to their country.

Months had gone by before we both visited the Correctional Institution for Women or CIW to see what
vocational programs were in place and how the women in detention produce these highly attractive objects.
What sparks the creativity of women living in trying circumstances? What gives them hope? What sustains
them?

CIW Mandaluyong was founded in 1931 with the stated mission of giving women in detention opportunities
for reformation so as to facilitate their reentry to society as law-abiding citizens and God-fearing individuals.
As such, the programs at the institution include moral and spiritual instruction, education and vocational
training, work and livelihood projects, sports and recreational activities, and behavior modification
programs. The rationale behind these programs is to engage the women in character-building activities that
will lead to their reformation and renewal. The institution also makes every effort to make them feel like they
are part of a caring community. In most cases, their own families have ceased to care about them or have
abandoned them, and it is left to the institution to give them hope. It is a sad reality that these women must
face, and it is a small comfort that they are given opportunities to better themselves, although the prospect
of release are often times not hopeful. More than 60 percent of the women in detention have been
sentenced to life imprisonment and cannot hope to be granted executive clemency though they may be old,
infirm or dying. It is the current administrations position that women prisoners should serve their time and
that good conduct while in prison is the natural consequence of being confined in a controlled or
regimented environment. No doubt there is much truth to this. Yet there is also the idea of giving people a
second chance; otherwise what is the good of reformation programs in the long run? Its a thorny issue that
could spark endless debate and discussion. Yet in a sense, it all goes back to the perennial problem of
poverty, poor education and a lack of sound moral grounding.
Talents bloom within prison

walls as women create flowers and note cards.


When we visited the institution, we first stopped at the office of Superintendent Rachel Ruelo, a warm and
hospitable woman who kindly explained all aspects of detention. We then proceeded to the work areas
where a whole host of crafts are produced. In these large, connecting rooms women were creating
handbags of various shapes and sizes from a colorful assortment of beads, turning out rosary beads, fruit
bowls, place mats, key chains, toilet paper holders and floor mats. An adjacent area was dedicated to
paper crafts. Here, women made handbags in woven patterns, as well as flowers and vases from scraps of
newspaper wrapped in colored cellophane. Looking at these areas, and seeing the contentment in the
faces of the women workers, it was hard to think of the place as a detention center for women offenders. It
became clear that art in its many forms heals and sustains the spirit. Although the crafts provide a much-
needed livelihood for these women, it does much more it builds self-esteem and gives them a purpose
for living.

A side from the production of handicrafts, the women also tend to a vegetable and fruit garden, as well as a
piggery. They are further provided with free healthcare, and can take elementary and high school-level
courses. Atty. Ruelo told us that this June they will introduce college-level courses. On the day of our visit,
we noticed the women were busy going about their business engaged in their respective duties,
attending religious services or even taking a break from a day filled with activities that begins at 6:30 in the
morning and ends in the early evening. Atty. Ruelo tells us that the institution very much encourages the
feeling of being part of a community and extends humane treatment to all offenders. As she explains, They
feel that they are being cared for as members of our family and not judged as criminals. They feel that they
are a part of us. Many sectors have extended a helping hand to the institute and to the women themselves
such as the Philippine National Red Cross, various NGOs, religious and student groups who have become
actively involved in reaching out to the inmates. They support outreach programs in the form of medical
and dental missions and provide for the basic needs of the inmates. Still, Atty. Ruelo says one of the best
ways to help the women is to find buyers for their finished products. We have lots of products that can be
used in the home like ref covers, kitchen towels, iron pads, fruit trays, among many others crafts. Anyone
can buy these products here at the institution during office hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We will very much
appreciate the support because it helps the inmates and it also helps the government because what they
spend in supporting the inmates we can return to back to them, she points out.
Bags and home decor

proudly fill the display shelves at the CIW Mandaluyong.


Even under the most favorable conditions, I wondered what would happen to the inmates who remain in
prison for the rest of their lives how do they carry on? From where do they draw their strength and their
hope? Atty. Ruelo would someday like to see deserving inmates get a new lease on life. What I want the
administration to understand is the idea of giving these women a second chance particularly because most
of their crimes are born of poverty and are non-violent crimes. Ruelo is an advocate of the early release of
women prisoners. Indeed, she points out, The United Nations has adopted the UN rules for the treatment
of women prisoners last December 2010, and one of the provisions is the early release of women
offenders. It was Thailand that advocated these rules so it is called the Bangkok Rules and I hope it can
someday be adopted in our country. Thus far, Ruelo says CIW has a high success rate with 95 percent of
the women offenders released and only five percent returning to the institution for violating parole
conditions. How does the institute determine who gets an early release? That depends on the sentence,
says Ruelo. What is most important is the granting of good conduct time allowance. This is one thing that
an inmate holds on to while staying in prison for so many years, expecting that with good behavior she
could be released earlier and she could be joining her family or loved ones. We hope that the government
can understand the situation of some of these women particularly those who are old and very sick
because, once released, we dont think they have the capacity to commit another crime so giving them the
opportunity to spend their last days with their families is something we owe to them as Christians, Ruelo
explains.
The women in detention at

CIW heading to one of their day-long activities


I left her office and spoke to two inmates who helped shed light on life in this detention center and how
they cope with a bleak if not uncertain future. I spoke to Rose Ariola who was incarcerated for the offense
of illegal recruitment that carries a penalty of life imprisonment. Rose has served time for 16 years. When I
grew up I was rebellious because I grew up without a father. Lumaki ako struggling talaga. Tapos nangarap
ng magandang buhay ng sarap ng buhay kaya ako ng land nang recruitment. Sa 16 years ko dito
marami akong natutunan, natuto ako ng humility, loving others kasi po ngayon nagtuturo ako nang values
education dito wherein I prioritize the word of God nakaroon ako ng relasyon sa Panginoon. When
asked why she turned to illegal recruitment, she explained that recruitment becomes illegal when it is not
licensed or when one uses the license of another company without the authority to do so. She would once
procure tourist visas for those who wanted to go to Japan, or recruit factory workers for Korea. It would
seem that the offense is not serious enough to warrant a life sentence yet Rose says once there are three
complainants or more, it becomes life-scale. With no prospect of release from prison, I asked Rose how
she finds hope. There is nothing impossible with God, she says. Wala talagang clemency, walang
commutation of sentence, walang laya pero hindi po kami nawawalan ng pag-asa. There is always hope in
God hindi nagbabago ang pangako ng Dios. To those women in similar situations, Rose has these
words of advice: Mahirap umasa sa iba, just keep trusting in the Lord dont give up. For one who is in
her early 60s, Rose looks well and appears to make the best of whatever life brings. Minsan naiinip ako,
pero wala na akong panahon magisip dahil ang inaalagan ko sa brigada is 142 inmates plus values
education. Ako ang very concerned sa kapwa ko kaya doon ko nalang na-en enjoy ang buhay ko. Rose
also acts as supervisor for the production of the beaded bags for Via Venetto. In closing she says, Sana
makatulong itong interview sa kalayaan ng kababaehan specially yung mga old age at yung mga very sick
and yung almost dying.

Merle Diomangay, who is now 57, came to the institute for the offense of drug pushing and abuse. This will
be her 10th year in detention. Though she is widowed, her three children still visit her regularly and it is
because of them that she that finds the strength to carry on. Sila ang aking kalakasan, says Merle. She
looks back at her former life with much regret mostly because she abandoned her children in their
formative years. Hindi ko napalaking maayos ang aking mga anak, eleven years old lang yung bunso ko
noong nakulong ako.

In the face of life imprisonment with no prospects of release, I asked Merle how she remains steadfast.
Wala naman tayong magagawa kung hindi sumampalataya sa Diyos na siyang nagbibigay sa atin ng
kalakasan at pagasa. Natutunan ko na walang impossible sa Panginoon, she says. Pagising ko sa
umaga, pinupuri ko ang Panginoon na ako ay buhay pa at bigayan niya akong ng panibagong kalakasan.
What is her message to fellow women offenders? Wag tayong mawalan ng pagasa sa Panginoon.
Hihipuin ng Panginoon ang puso ng mga nanununkulan sa goberyno at mababago ang lahat na sitwasyon
para sa atin na nakakulong.

I asked Merle what her prayers are as she rises in the morning. What follows is the full text of a heartfelt
and repentant prayer.

Panginoon, thank you. Salamat po buhay pa ho ako. Malusog po aking buong katawan magmula sa po
sa physical hangang sa aking mga joints, sa aking puso at pag-iisip. Gawin mo po akong pagpapala sa
mga taong makakita sa akin, sa mga kapatid na makakita sa akin. Gawin mo po ako na example patungo
sa panibagong buhay at pagasa na aking tatahakin kung sakasakali bigayan ninyo akong pagkakataon na
makalaya o makalabas sa lugar na ito. Ito po ay dinadala ko sa pangalan ni Jesus kasama po ang gabay
na mahal na spirito.

There is no doubt that many in our society suffer from extreme poverty and deprivation and yet theyve kept
their dignity and integrity intact. There is no excuse for any crime, however small or petty. There are only
underlying causes and reasons. And yet for those women offenders who are on the path of repentance and
renewal, shouldnt there be the promise of a brighter day? Isnt that what our faith teaches? For now, and at
this institution, they have found a measure of peace and hope. Still the hope must live on that they can
someday return to their communities, and be given the chance to start life anew.