Drug war lands more women in jail

Although men are the main targets of drug arrests, their partners are often detained as well, leading to motherless households, neglected children and congested jails
/ 07:14 AM December 17, 2017

NO COURT HEARING YET Nanay Crecencia waits for her day in court after being in jail for 3 years now.

Nanay Crecencia, 73, was on her way out of the Mandaue City Jail where she had visited her nephew when several policemen accosted her and slapped cuffs on her wrists.  She was then taken inside a police mobile, forced to strip naked and arrested for drug possession.  The police said they found a sachet of “shabu” (crystal meth) inside her pants’ pocket, a claim she vehemently denied.

“I spent two weeks in the police precinct before being taken to the local jail,” recalled Nanay Crecencia. “I’ve been here for 3 years now but I’ve never been to any court hearing.”


Without any family member to visit her, Nanay Crecencia struggles with loneliness and a deep-seated distrust of the law as she waits for her arraignment.

Since President Duterte launched a vicious war on illegal drugs in 2016, thousands of women have been arrested for alleged violation of Republic Act (RA) No. 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

Nationwide, around 67 percent of more than 146,000 inmates are in custody for drug-related charges.  Of this percentage, women comprise 13 percent, or 10, 291 detainees.

Although reports on the arrests and deaths of male drug suspects have dominated the media, the Philippines and Thailand—which both launched a campaign against illegal drugs—have seen a significant increase in the number of women arrested for low-level, drug-related offenses.

Emerging scenario

Cathy Alvarez of the International Drug Policy Consortium noted that an emerging scenario in the government’s war against drugs was the arrest of couples in drug-related offenses.

Jessa,  27, an inmate in the Cebu City Jail, recalled the torment of being a mother locked behind bars for drug possession.

“Both my kids didn’t know that my husband and I are here in jail.  My youngest was only 2 when I was detained.  We had to lie and tell them that their mother was working somewhere.  We did that so they won’t be bullied by other kids,” she said.

Jessa turned teary-eyed when she recalled how she missed the important moments in her children’s lives—every graduation, every birthday, every school activity where she was needed.


“I remember my child needing a family picture for her class—but we couldn’t be there for her,” Jessa said.

In the local jails of Cebu and Mandaue cities in Central Visayas, women are usually arrested for illegal drug possession and for selling drugs. There has also been an increase in cases of possession of drug paraphernalia.

According to Jail Senior Insp. Stephanny Salazar, warden of the Mandaue City Jail female dormitory, drug arrests have swelled jail population and account for some 80 to 90 percent of inmates.

“In 2013, for instance, we only have 97 detainees. Now we have 182,” she said.

Slow legal processes

Two of four cells in the Mandaue City Jail female dormitory are allotted for drug offenders, which are more crowded than the cells meant for women involved in crimes against person and property.

The extremely slow legal processes and the congestion of cases in court have also swelled the Cebu City Jail, some female detainees lamented.  In some cases, their stay in jail has exceeded the prescribed penalty for their crime.  For possession of drug paraphernalia, for instance, the penalty is only six months and one day, to four years.

“Sometimes, the detainees stay here longer than the prescribed penalty, because their cases have been overlooked in court,” Jessa said.

The country’s drug laws have become too punitive with extremely high penalties and often nonbailable charges, some human rights lawyers observed.

“Our law has been crafted in such a way that it’s easy to tag an arrest for drug possession even if the case involves a really small amount of drugs. This would make the person ineligible for rehabilitation,” said Rommel Abitria of the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation.  “This could really blow up jail populations,” he added.

In countries in the region, Abitria said, there are different penalties for drug possession, depending on its use—whether for personal consumption or for selling.  But he said officials need to be reminded that the purpose of RA 9165 was to rehabilitate drug dependents.

Unintended consequences

“There are unintended consequences to the numbers game if we only look at the number of arrests and the number of deaths, but do not consider the profiles and identities of people arrested,” he added.

Women detainees also have to grapple with systems, practices and policies crafted with men in mind—because they comprise the majority of inmates—and this can have a negative impact on the family they left behind.

“Since we live in the society where child-rearing is dependent on the mother most of the time, a lot of children stand to lose their mothers’ guidance when a lot of women go to jail,” Alvarez said.

There are also special privileges that male detainees enjoy that women don’t, like conjugal visits, which are not allowed in female dorms because the facilities are much smaller.  There are also no clinics in most local jails.

“Jail facilities depend on the capacity of the local government to provide assistance. So there’s no uniform standard when it comes to clinics, conjugal visits, etc.” Alvarez said.

Salazar of the Mandaue City Jail said that although the system viewed male and female inmates as equals and made sure that only female personnel provided custodial services in the female dorm, women have specific needs that are difficult to address.

“Right now we have three pregnant women inside. Maternal care is a main problem, especially for women with  sensitive pregnancies. Ideally, we should have a clinic here, but our facilities are too small. We cannot provide for their monthly checkup; we can only bring them to the public hospital to have them checked,” Salazar said.

Bangkok Rules

In 2010, the 12th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice adopted the Bangkok Rules, or The United Nations Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures of Women Offenders.

As a mechanism for jail decongestion, the Bangkok Rules call for a more gender-sensitive approach to jail and alternatives to imprisonment, such as noncustodial sanctions and diversionary measures.

While the Philippine government and the jail management bureau are aware of this law, it’s hard to monitor its implementation since its compliance is not compulsory even seven years after its adoption.

According to Alvarez and Abitria, the region needs a hard law that will define the standards and access to justice for people in detention.

“The Philippines is a signatory to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, Convention Against Torture, and the Cedaw (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) that are all binding. But it’s really hard to monitor if our obligations are being followed,” Abitria said.

Since inmate welfare and development were introduced in local jails, rehabilitation has now become the thrust in crafting programs and activities for detainees.

An example is the good character time allowance, where an inmate’s good behavior and active participation in jail activities are rewarded with a number of days deducted from their jail sentences.

“It’s important to admit that we have problems. The jail itself is a problem. But our mandate is not only to secure (inmates) but also to help them through long-term solutions,” Salazar said.

* * *

This story is produced under the 2017 Southeast Asian Press Alliance’s Regional Reporting Fellowship

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