Prison reform: The only unity we need

Sylvia Estrada Claudio

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Much as I hate to say it, I think Senator Bong Revilla has a right to complain about jail conditions

I finally found a cause that can unite me with 3 groups of people whose principles are different from mine. This cause should unite these 3 groups as well, even if they are against each other. 

The groups I refer to are the plunderers Enrile, Revilla and Estrada; the CPP-NPA-NDF; and the anti-RH groups like the CBCP and Pro-Life. 

I am referring to prison reform. 

Last March 2014, Andrea Rosal, accused of being a leader of the Communist Party and the New People’s Army, was arrested. She was 7 months pregnant. She delivered 2 months later, but the baby died. Rosal’s supporters, including the human rights group Karapatan, denounced the death, saying that it was the result of the torture Rosal received, the lack of health services in the prison, and the denial of her request to seek health care outside the prison. 

If there is a situation in which the constitutional principle of “equal protection of the life of the mother and unborn from the moment of conception” can be applied with such clarity, this would have been it. The anti-RH groups invoked this when they asked the Supreme Court to declare the Reproductive Health law unconstitutional. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, during the hearings and in her opinion on the petitions, impressed me by her insistence that the words on the protection of the unborn, which she pointed out was to be found in only one sentence in the Constitution, should not be taken apart from other equally important social justice and human rights mandates. She emphasized that the RH law was also consistent with constitutional mandates like the right of parents to plan their families and the right of women over their health and their bodies. 

In the case of Andrea Rosal, the mandate to protect her fetus was consistent with other mandates with which this should be contextualized such as her right to health, her right to have a family, her right to decide over her body. She wanted that pregnancy and she should have been given the health services and humane treatment that would have protected both her health and the well-being of her child. 

I wonder therefore why the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and its anti-RH allies had nothing much to say about the cruel treatment perpetrated by the military against the mother and her unborn fetus. Belatedly the CBCP called on the government to allow Rosal to attend her child’s funeral. But the right of the fetus to life did not seem to be an important point. This is unusual given the alacrity by which it has defended the rights of other fetuses during the RH debates. 

Karapatan and the Free Andrea Rosal Committee were emphatic on the point, however, that Rosal had rights to health care and humane conditions of incarceration. The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) described these inhumane conditions in a statement on the matter: extreme heat without an electric fan, being made to lie on a concrete floor, being in a cell with 30 other detainees. The CPP added that, “The CPP joins Andrea, her family, friends and supporters, her lawyers, doctors and human rights advocates, in denouncing the Aquino regime for the inhumane conditions of Andrea’s detention and denial of medical care. The Filipino people are one in holding the Aquino regime, especially its police and military officials, responsible for the death of Baby Diona.” 

Which makes me wonder why those appalled at the bad conditions they decry in the case of Rosal, show no sympathy for the complaints of Revilla about the heat and, rats and cockroaches of his prison cell.  On their website for example, Bayan Muna slams the Aquino administration’s VIP treatment of Revilla, Estrada and Napoles while decrying the horrible treatment of Andrea Rosal. 

This is a popular theme, by the way. There has been a lot of anger over Revilla’s complaints, some even mocking him for being far less than the tough hero he portrays himself to be in and out of the movies. The charge regarding VIP treatment, however, should be nuanced. Reports of Revilla and Estrada being allowed any number of visitors and at any time of the day which goes against the rules for prisoners are indeed VIP treatment. Revilla and Estrada must be treated the same as all other prisoners. So must Rosal.  But that treatment must meet certain minimum standards.

I believe that in the case of the bad conditions of our prisons, detainees, even Revilla, has a right to complain. Even his cell does not meet the minimum standard for prison cells promulgated by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights if his complaints are true. These include that a prisoner should have a single room unless in prisons with dorm type facilities. In which case, these should not be congested and those sharing the dorm should be chosen properly. Cells should be kept cool and scrupulously clean. These should be the conditions of the thousands of other political and criminal detainees all over the country. 

People might be upset with me for putting Revilla and Rosal on the same plane. They may be angered by my standing up for Revilla’s rights even before he has been properly punished. I do not put them on the same plane in any way except in that plane where we must all be equal and fully protected – the claim of human rights. If the reader prefers, every human being must be coddled when it comes to the fulfillment of his or her human rights. 

Human rights is universal

To be clear, I do not wish to say that Revilla’s rights have been as severely violated as those of Rosal’s. The violation of his right to a cooler and un-infested room surely cannot be compared to the level of iniquity perpetrated against Rosal. I am appalled at the difference in treatment between Revilla and Rosal. I do not think the heat, the rats and the cockroaches are any reason for me to call for the release of Revilla. On the other hand, Rosal has a right to some redress. At the very least, a transfer to better conditions, if not release.  

But I am also disappointed at how human rights in the country remains factionalized and highly theatrical. It is clear that human rights advocates make claims only for those who happen to be on their side of the political fence. Revilla, being the selfish man that he is, claims rights for himself alone. The anti-RH people claim rights for the unborn, forgetting the pregnant woman who carries the fetus. The CPP-NPA-NDF, Makabayan and Karapatan make claims for Rosal and her child but show disdain for Revilla’s complaint even if what he is asking for is the implementation of human rights standards. 

How about those powerless and politically insignificant people like street children and sex workers who are routinely abused by police and state forces? Unfortunately they are not important politicians, belong to no political bloc, are not fetuses made important by a political church. 

To prove my point further, the clueless Armed Forces of the Philippines Public Affairs Office chief, Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala has asked that militant groups not use the death of Rosal’s baby to advance political messages. Unfortunately for the military, its inability to provide the necessary conditions for the safe pregnancy and childbirth of Rosal demands the strongest possible political message about human rights. 

Human rights are universal. They should be given to the worst person in the world. Small and big violations are nonetheless violations, and should be protested. It is to that person whom we hate the most, that we should be extra vigilant in extending human rights protection. 

Revilla has right to complain

Between Revilla and Rosal, I have almost no compassion for Revilla. But as much as I hate to say it, I think he has a right to complain. It is likely that many in the military find Rosal and her comrades the worst kind of people. But they must extend to her and all political detainees the same human rights protections they would extend to their children. 

Each Filipino, every human right organization, every political party, every media organization, every senator, every religion, should set aside political differences and uphold human rights standards to the highest degree and for every human being. We must stand against torture. Against the deprivation of comprehensive health care for detainees. Against the overcrowding of prison cells. Against rats in prison cells. Revilla, Estrada, Enrile and Rosal must have clean, cool and sanitary detention cells in facilities that have clinics, libraries, gyms and well-run canteens. Every single prisoner should have this. It is upsetting to me that what should be the conditions of all prisoners, should be considered VIP treatment in this country. 

Maybe we should use all the money the government is saving on the now-disallowed PDAF allocations to improve our jails. At the very least we can begin by providing adequate health care, including reproductive health care, in our prison system. 

That way we can spend less of our energies talking about prison conditions and proceed with full force towards the prosecution and punishment of the guilty and the freeing of the innocent. –

Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also holds a PhD in Psychology. She is Professor of the Department of Women and Development Studies, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines. She is also co-founder and Chair of the Board of Likhaan Center for Women’s Health. 

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