Gay and lesbian officers of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) have been banned from frisking and conducting strip searches on people of the same sex who are suspected of sneaking contraband into jail.
“At no instance [shall] a female homosexual jail officer be allowed to conduct body search on female jail visitors, while a male homosexual jail officer cannot body search a male jail visitor,” a BJMP memorandum said.
The policy has been in practice for a long time in some 400 jails nationwide, but the standard operating procedure was put in writing and disseminated to wardens in September last year “by way of reminder,” an official said.
“We want to make sure there is no malice, and the subject of the body search does not become uncomfortable,” said BJMP Director Rosendo M. Dial, dismissing suggestions that this could be considered a discriminatory practice.
The policy bears good intentions: to minimize possibilities of sexual abuse and to conduct body searches in a “professional manner without violating the legal rights of visitors/inmates and with due respect and regard to human dignity.”
But it also raises questions about privacy rights and the extent to which the government can compel law enforcers to reveal their sexual orientation, and prohibit members of a particular gender from performing tasks that are part of their jobs.
Ladlad, a political party advocating the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, called the regulation “a clear case of discrimination.”
“In the first place, what is the basis to say there is malice? Just because one is a homosexual, they can automatically assume that there is sexual malice?” said Ladlad chair Bemz Benedito.
“This is a clear case of discrimination on our ranks because it does not account for our capabilities and skills in performing the job, but our sexual orientation,” Benedito said.
Under Presidential Decree No. 807, which prescribes the organization of the civil service, to which the BJMP is subject, “all appointments in the career service shall be made only according to merit and fitness, to be determined as far as practicable by competitive examinations.”
The BJMP’s own code for ethical standards states that the “civilian character of the organization requires adherence to the rule on the merit and fitness system.”
Thousands of visitors to BJMP jails go through body searches every day. As of February, there are 62,870 inmates, most of them, or 58,900, detained on criminal charges. The rest are serving sentences.
Under BJMP rules, “all male visitors shall be searched by male jail officers while female visitors shall be searched by female jail officers only.”
But in assigning shifts, the BJMP does not ask a jail guard point-blank if he or she is homosexual. “We don’t do that,” Dial said.
In fact, the official said he had encountered no case of a jail guard confessing to being gay or refusing an assignment to body-search duty for that reason.
So how can they tell? “It’s the wardens who assign officers to body-search duty. They have their own ways of determining whether one is homosexual or not. It comes out in the way one behaves,” Dial said without elaborating on what qualifies as gay behavior.
But “again, that’s a violation,” said Benedito, who is transsexual. “You’re just assuming … You cannot just assume … based on stereotypes of LGBTs. Just because one is effeminate doesn’t automatically mean one is homosexual.”
Most visitors are subject to just a “pat or frisk or rub.” Guards run their hands through the body, carefully feeling for concealed items, such as prohibited drugs and weapons, which are illegal contraband, as well as ordinary contraband, such as pirated discs, jewelry and mobile phones.
“If during the pat/frisk/rub search the jail officer develops probable cause that contraband is being hidden by the subject which is not likely to be discovered, the jail officer shall request a conduct of strip search/visual body cavity search,” the memo said.
According to Dial, body language plays a role here in which visitors arouse the suspicion of the guard based on “how nervous they look.”
But strip and visual body cavity searches may only be conducted if the visitor consents to it and signs a waiver, “otherwise, we just don’t allow them to enter,” he said.
In all BJMP facilities, there is a private room where such searches are conducted. No cameras are allowed and no member of the opposite sex may watch.
“Personnel performing searches shall not be allowed to talk/discuss the search they performed unless directed by the court or warden,” the memo said.
The guidelines on what to do during such body searches are also graphically detailed in the BJMP memo, including provisions on how to search delicate parts such as the anus and genitals, where contraband could be concealed.
Dial said the system appears to be working. “We have had no complaints of abuse from the visitors of the inmates so far,” he told the Inquirer.
“We will fight this,” Ladlad said.