De Lima: One year of living and surviving in jail

Camille Elemia

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De Lima: One year of living and surviving in jail
A year on, President Rodrigo Duterte's fiercest critic has learned to live the life she said she does not deserve – with the help of her family, friends, and cats

MANILA, Philippines – It was a humid Sunday afternoon just like in ordinary jails.

But unlike in others, just a few steps away from security personnel sat a group of middle-aged cousins laughing and reminiscing as if they were in a family reunion. Near them, inside a small holding room ventilated by two fans, Senator Leila de Lima engaged with her visitors and other relatives.

For the past 52 weeks, Senator Leila de Lima has spent her Sundays in that jail with family, friends, and other supporters, celebrating Mass and having lunch in what they jokingly refer to as “Parokya ni Leila.” It’s a brief respite from most days when all she has are her books and her beloved cats. (READ: From power to prison: How 2017 changed the life of De Lima, family)

From being a workaholic, the senator was practically forced to slow down after being jailed for alleged involvement in illegal drugs. A year on, President Rodrigo Duterte’s fiercest critic has learned to live the life she said she does not deserve. (READ: De Lima in jail: ‘I never imagined Duterte would be this vindictive’)

FAMILY. De Lima in the middle of her two sons, Vincent and Israel, and other relatives. Sourced photo

While laughter and smiles are common, the hall has also seen tears from relatives, friends, and supporters.

Nevertheless, those who visit De Lima are pleasantly surprised to see the embattled senator in her usual upbeat self. She has lost considerable weight – from size 32, she’s now down to 29. She continues to don light brown hair and wears her usual scarves and bracelets.

Some visitors told Rappler the senator faced them looking not an inch a detainee, but more a host. After all, De Lima has repeatedly said she does not want to give her critics the satisfaction of seeing her suffer.

Life inside

From being one of the most sought-after election lawyers and powerful government officials, the senator now leads a very routinary life every day, armed with only the basics.

De Lima is one of the lady detainees in the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center, aside from Police Superintendent Maria Cristina Nobleza and Ozamiz City Vice Mayor Nova Princess Parojinog-Echavez.

She has neither communicated with any of her neighbors nor has she established any ties with her guards.

“They are very courteous, professional. I tried before but napapansin ko, sila na rin ‘yung nag-aano kasi binabantayan sila (but I noticed they are the ones who evade it because they’re being watched). Small talk lang, ‘pag ihahatid na ako sa aking cell (Just a bit of small talk whenever they bring me to my cell),” she said.

VISITORS. Family and friends would regularly visit the senator every Sunday. Rappler file photo

In her small cell, she has a single bed, a stand fan, a few pieces of monobloc chairs, 6 small plastic boxes for her clothes, a full-length mirror, a 5-layer bookshelf, a tiny foldable side table, a desk filled with documents and books, hardly giving her space to move, and a few more boxes of books.

She has a microwave oven, too – so far the only electronic appliance she’s allowed. She had requested that, as her staff brings her home-cooked food daily for safety reasons.

The senator has a small ice chest, which her staff fills with store-bought ice daily.

In a tiny bathroom, a toilet bowl, a pail of water, and a dipper are the only notable fixtures.

“You don’t know how it feels to be falsely accused. Even if the rules here are getting stricter and stricter, I still, sometimes, feel blessed. My stay here made me think about other prisoners who are falsely accused but are in cramped prisons for years,” De Lima said.

Asked if she knows the luxuries her other neighbors enjoy, De Lima said she has heard about them. But for her, there’s no use being bitter or crying foul over them.

“Nothing, let it be. I’m not the type to compare. It’s part of reality that these guys are political allies of the President. They might be PDP-Laban already or soon will be. Okay lang, gano’n talaga (It’s fine. That’s just how it is),” she said.

Routine of the new ‘cat lady’

She usually starts her day between 5 and 5:30 am by praying and reading the Gospel. De Lima said she has now become a “serious” Bible reader.

After that, she takes the time to feed her new buddies – stray cats that have become her family. Her staff even brings fish for her cats, together with the senator’s daily meals.

“I used to really hate cats because my dogs hate them. But now I love them,” she said.

She currently has 9 cats, with a few-months-old kitten named “Bran” as the newest addition. Bran, she said, sleeps with her in her cell and sometimes on her bed.

It was given to her one night in December 2017, after police in the Custodial Center rescued the abandoned kitten stuck in a post.

It was named after the senator’s favorite Game of Thrones character Bran Stark, who interestingly, survived a fall from a high tower. 

After attending to her cats, she starts cleaning her detention cell, including the small court outside.

“‘Yan na rin ang exercise ko rito (That also serves as my exercise here).”

After this, she resumes reading newspapers, work documents, and novels.

She takes her siesta between 11 and 11:30 am, before again returning to reading. By 1 pm, she takes her lunch.

She then spends the next few hours meeting with her staff as she tries to continue fulfilling her mandate. Around 3 to 5 pm, she spends time with visitors, if there are any, at the holding room.

By 5 pm, when visitors are made to leave, she’s back to having only stray cats as companions. It is the time when reality hits her the most.

She eats her no-rice dinner by 8 pm. The senator, like most women, was candid enough to admit there are times she fails to stick to it. If the food tastes better with rice, she said, she gives in to the “temptation”.

“I tell the boys here [the security] not to leave any more rice so I won’t be tempted. But maybe because they feel pity that I will eat such delicious food without rice, they leave some for me,” the senator said.

With her diet and exercise, De Lima said she feels “fit” except for her sugar level, which she said, has to be regularly checked. In that case, she has a doctor-brother who could attend to her. The Custodial Center also has medical staff.

Old and new habits

Aside from her newfound love for cats, De Lima has also developed a liking for gardening.

It all started when her ally Senator Francis Pangilinan sent her herbs. She said she now has at least 10 pots planted with sili, mint, oregano, basil, and tomato.

Her two new interests, however, have yet to work together, as De Lima said some plants have died because her cats pee on them.

“Nilagyan na namin ng parang harang, paano iniihian ng mga pusa ko,” De Lima said. (We already put a barrier because my cats pee on the plants.)

She is also keen on trying painting, although she admitted she has no artsy bone in her body. She jokingly recalled how her staff asked her to draw a bird (pipit) for her upcoming book containing some of her dispatches.

“Binigyan nila ako ng sketch, ginaya ko lang doon. Puwede naman ‘yung itsura (They gave me a sketch to follow. I think it would work),” De Lima said.

Despite all these, the senator said she misses her old routine outside. First and foremost, she said she misses the time when she could cook and go to the market again. At one point during her first year in the Senate, she sent her specialty laing to reporters. 

“I also miss going to Our Lady of Manaoag. I go there thrice a month. I miss driving because it relaxes me, also practical shooting, watching movies, listening to music, and dancing,” De Lima said.

But for now, De Lima has no choice but to go on missing her life outside. She herself has learned to live with her current fate.

And with the coming of her second year in jail, she said she only has hope to cling to.

“It’s just hope. Realistically, it seems quite remote. Nothing less than a miracle would free me.” –

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Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a former multimedia reporter for Rappler. She covered media and disinformation, the Senate, the Office of the President, and politics.