Life Behind Bars: How women political prisoners are treated under the Duterte administration

Graphics by Aaron Macaraeg / Bulatlat


Part 2 of 2

Read the first part of this report via our mirror site: Under Duterte, heightened impunity led to the highest number of women political prisoners

MANILA – Sleeping soundly with their two children, heavy knocks echoed the house of community organizers Cora Agovida and husband Michael Bartolome – turning what could have been an ordinary good night sleep to an evening of terror.

In the wee hours of Oct. 21, 2019, the couple was brought to a Manila police station, leaving their two children– aged two and ten years old– alone in their house. Both were detained for more than two years until their cases were dismissed for the prosecution’s failure to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

She was among the many female political prisoners under the Duterte administration who was robbed of her years of being a mother and a wife. By the time she got out of prison, the child she used to breastfeed had turned four years old, while her eldest was almost thirteen.

It did not help that in her time as a political prisoner, she was treated in the most inhumane manner despite the fact that the budget of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), which is tasked to house all persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) has tripled under President Rodrigo Duterte (from P8 billion in 2016 to P21 billion in 2022).

“At first I really had a hard time adjusting. Physically, there were so many [privacy] violations, especially when I go to the comfort room, I sometimes use the CR with five other people. And I share the cell with 129 other PDLs […] even if I wanted to sleep I couldn’t because of noise and the little space […] emotionally, I was also lonely inside. I could only talk to my family and friends through audio and video call,” said Agovida.

(Talagang nanibago ako sa loob syempre. Yung sa physical, ang daming violations. Pag CR mo pa lang. Tapos 130 kayo sa loob ng dorm. Sa loob ng banyo minsan 6 kayo don naliligo umiihi sabay sabay. Sobrang ingay kasi crowded kayo kahit gusto mo matulog di ka makakarelax. Syempre yung emotional, pangungulila mo don sa loob kasi talagang hanggang tawag na lang tsaka vid call makakausap mga pamilya at kaibigan mo.)

COVID-19 exacerbated health risks, poor maintenance

For Agorvida, female PDL dormitories remain poorly maintained and highly congested – an experience Agovida has gone through herself. For one, during her stay at the Manila City Jail, she shared a small “classroom type” with more than a hundred PDLs.

“On our first evening, I slept on the floor. We have to lie down on our sides because there was hardly any space,” Agovida said.

Jail congestion has been a lingering problem of the BJMP. As of May 2021, the Bureau reported that out of the 470 facilities it handles, 356 or 75.74 percent are congested. This means that two to 32 PDLs occupy a space of 4.7 square meters instead of the United Nation standard of one person only.

Lady Ann Salem, a journalist who was arrested in 2020, also shared the same sentiment with Agovida, saying that she and fellow PDLs barely fit inside their cell and that their beds reached a third level. “In the regular dorms, there are about 35 to 40 PDLs in a cell,” Salem said.

In an attempt to keep their respective cells clean, PDLs rent out beds to as much as P5,000 monthly.

“The organization of PDLs within the detention facility, not the BJMP, is implementing this because they do not have enough budget to maintain its cleanliness” Salem said, adding that the fees collected are used to buy cleaning and other materials.

Both Agovida and Salem’s experience while in detention debunks claims of the BJMP, who per their Operations Manual published in 2015, said they are adhering to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Here, the UN states that cells and prison dormitories “should not be used to accommodate two or more persons overnight; dormitory facilities are to be supervised at night.” It also mentioned that prison dormitories should provide enough space, ventilation, lighting, and sanitary facilities that should be kept clean at all times.

In its 2021 report, the Commission on Audit reported that the overpopulation in BJMP’s jails prevents the Bureau from “attaining its objectives of improving the living conditions of inmates in accordance with the accepted standards set by the United Nations.”

When COVID-19 broke, disinfecting the cells to avoid the spread of the dreaded virus fell on the shoulders of PDLs. This was a challenge, said Agovida, due to budget and supply limitations.

She said that they were never tested for COVID-19, with BJMP officials telling them that they only rely on donations. This, she added, was very important because their cell was highly congested. As such, tt no longer came as a surprise when Agovida, while in detention, experienced symptoms of the virus.

“I lost my sense of taste and smell. That happened for a week. Whenever my fellow PDFs experience fever at that the time, they would no longer inform the infirmary because they will just transfer us to a new dorm but will neither receive proper treatment nor be brought to a hospital,” she said.

Water supply also a problem

Water supply was a constant problem for PDLs in the government detention facility.

Agovida said she had to make do with the three-liter water allocation for her everyday. This she would use for bathing, washing her clothes, and cleaning her personal belongings.

“With our limited water ratio, I would catch the water I used in bathing for others to use,” she said.

Women PDLs are also not provided with sanitary napkins. This is despite their almost 7 billion pesos budget for inmates’ safekeeping and development program in 2021. Most inmates had to shell out cash to buy necessities in cooperatives operating within the jails where the price for goods are reportedly higher.

Meanwhile, hygiene products are also subject to heightened scrutiny from jail guards that even sanitary pads are unwrapped before being given to inmates.

Such poor conditions in government detention facilities have become a burden, too, for the families of women political prisoners.

Kalayaan Rosales, whose parents Rowena and Oliver are both detained as political prisoners, said that she spends P2,000 ($37) to P3000 ($57) monthly to provide them their essentials. Besides their food and necessity, Kalayaan also gives her parents cash allowances that they could use for emergencies.

A struggle for the entire family

For Agovida, her detention is even more painful as she was separated from her two children.

When the Agovida and her husband Michael were brought to a Manila police station, her children were left at home. They were later brought to a children’s center in Manila.

It took them nearly two months to be reunited when both her sons came to visit before traveling to Masbate where they will live with their aunt. In December 2019, they spent their first Christmas apart.

Phone calls and video calls were also scarce as phone signal was unreliable in their hometown. In the first six months of the pandemic, Agovida was not able to call her children at all.

“Not a day passed that I did not think of what they were doing, and how I was faring in detention,” she said.

Agovida said she missed her children’s milestones – like when her youngest began to speak in complete sentences, eat independently and lose a few baby teeth. Her eldest son, on the other hand, began to hit puberty without both parents.

Now that the couple was both released from detention, they have decided to still live apart from their two sons for their safety. This time, fortunately, they are able to spend the holidays together.

Meanwhile, the daughter of detained political prisoners spouses Rowena and Oliver, Kalayaan said she suddenly became her family’s sole provider when her parents were arrested in 2018. It felt, she said, that she had to grow up overnight as she looked after her 15-year-old younger brother.

Lunch breaks for Kalayaan, 26, were not spent mingling with co-workers but by going from one jail facility to another as she visits her parents. When they were transferred to Camp Bagong Diwa, where visitors are only allowed on Sundays, “family day” suddenly had a new meaning for their family.

“It is a big responsibility to shoulder. It eats your time and patience. I am often left wondering if there is enough time on my plate, or if our budget can still last until the end of the month,” she said.

Life after detention

Following their release, both Agovida and Salem realized that it is impossible to return to the lives they once knew. They struggled physically and mentally to start again with their lives.

Salem said she transitioned from being a detainee inside the city jail to becoming a prisoner of the outside world, no longer able to return to her home due to safety concerns. Agovida, on the other hand, is still living away from her children for their safety.

“We had to start from scratch. We still cannot sleep at night because of the memories of our arrests. I am still reeling from the anxiety and trauma,” Agovida said.

Still, Agovida said she will continue with her advocacies, adding that, “choosing to remain silent will only allow them to continue violating our rights. We should not stop.” (RTS, JJE, RVO) (

This report is published as part of the special projects journalism class of the authors at the University of the Philippines – Diliman.

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