The death of the three-month-old daughter of political prisoner Reina Mae Nasino has again brought to the fore the flaws of the justice system and the viciousness of government’s counterinsurgency policy.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Prison is no place for babies.
But what happens when a pregnant detainee, especially those held behind bars over false charges, gives birth? Or when women who were arrested, detained, and even convicted still have very young children?
The recent death of the three-month-old daughter of political prisoner Reina Nasino has sparked questions on the fate of babies born by persons deprived of liberty. While prison is definitely not a place to raise a child, government policies must be revisited to ensure that there would be no more Baby Rivers in the future.
Nasino, who was arrested along with two other activists in the wee hours of November 5 last year, gave birth to Baby River on July 1. She appealed before the Manila court to allow her to care for her baby, who was underweight and malnourished upon birth. But Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 20 denied her plea, saying that the baby should be turned over to her father or their relatives who “could take care of her better because the jail does not have sufficient facility for the care of the baby.”
In a matter of weeks, River, deprived of the protection that breastfeeding can provide, fell ill. She was soon brought to intensive care and died on Friday evening even before the Manila court could grant Nasino’s plea for furlough to visit her dying daughter.
This morning, the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 47 granted Nasino’s plea, giving her three days to attend the wake and funeral of her daughter.
In other countries, babies are allowed to stay with detained mothers.
In some detention facilities in the United States, such as the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a child is allowed to stay up to one year, and in some cases 18 months. Mother and child live in a separate nursery facility. Apart from the Beford Hills Correctional Facility, there are also nursery programs in eight other states in the US.
Suitable rooms and external daycare facilities are also provided to children who reside with their detained mothers in Switzerland.
Among the other countries that allow women to be with their infant, where they are provided adequate care while in prison, include Argentina, Australia, and Belgium. Still, there are countries like Algeria and Sweden that even allow postponement of serving prison terms of mother-offenders in an effort to uphold the best interest of the child.
Noncustodial care is also afforded to detained pregnant or nursing women under Swedish laws.
In the Philippines
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, care and welfare for pregnant detainees and their babies are hardly looked into.
Those serving their respective sentences in the Correctional Institution for Women are generally allowed to be with their infants up to one year. After this, they will be asked to make arrangements with their relatives for child care or jail authorities can hand over the child to the government’s social and welfare department for foster care.
But in recent years, the Philippine government has received flak over arrests and consequent detention of activists, including pregnant women. Human rights groups have argued that such arrests stem from government’s counterinsurgency policy, which aims to stifle legitimate dissent. The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) observes the pattern in the arrests of political dissenters: planting of evidence, filing of non-bailable offenses which will take years to debunk under the “tedious, cumbersome, and even frustrating justice system.”
Among the most controversial was the arrest of then pregnant Andrea Rosal, whose baby died a day after she gave birth while still in detention. In the late afternoon of May 18, 2014, Andrea was wheeled to the Philippine General Hospital’s neonatal intensive care and for the first and last time held Baby Diona Andrea in her arms.
Her baby’s death was blamed on Andrea’s poor conditions in jail, where she did not receive any medical attention until her transfer to the hospital. She was already experiencing contractions in the evening of May 15 but was only admitted to the government hospital in the evening of the following day.
Months later, another pregnant activist Miradel Torres was arrested. Like Andrea, Miradel suffered from the poor health care in the country’s detention facility. After giving birth in 2014, she was allowed to be with her child for six months – two months in the hospital and four months in jail.
Her bail petition, where she repeatedly asked the local court in Infanta to allow her to care for her infant, among others, was repeatedly denied. After five years, Miradel has been cleared of all the charges filed against her, freed, and reunited with her son.
Before Andrea and Miradel, two of the health workers arrested in 2010 dubbed as “Morong 43” who gave birth while behind bars were allowed to go on hospital detention to breastfeed and care for their babies.
Both mothers were still in hospital detention with their babies when the court ordered their release.
No arrests in the first place
Human rights groups said Nasino, as in the case of hundreds more political prisoners, should not have been arrested in the first place. Her lawyers maintained that the firearms allegedly found under her bed during the November 2019 raid of their office were planted.
Nearly a year since then, the prosecution has yet to finish the presentation of their first witness, one Nasino’s lawyers, Katherine Panguban, told Bulatlat. The prosecution, too, has opposed Nasino’s earlier motion to care and nurse her daughter, which led to the court decision to separate the mother and infant. The prosecution argued that the political prisoner was charged with a non-bailable offense and that it would “cost too much on the part of the government.”
“This government is so threatened and refuses to release a mother political prisoner in order to care for an infant child? What kind of government is this that refuses to allow a mother to see and embrace her child in her final moment in life? The inhumanity of this government is beyond comprehension,” said human rights group Karapatan.
Karapatan said that to ensure that there would be no more Baby Rivers and Baby Diona Andreas in the future, mothers like Reina and Andrea should have never been arrested and detained over trumped up cases in the first place.