Mani-pedi, anyone?

The mothers' ward

Some of these products can rival those sold in Kultura.

Where you can expand what you know, you are free.

Not cells but dormitories
(Photo credits to Lan Phuong)

Prison conjures images of horror -- cramped cells, cruel prison guards, nasty gang wars, bad food. Desperation.

I had this mindset when I, along with two of my classmates – Vietnamese Lan Phuong and Cambodian Seangly Phak -- visited the Correctional Institution for Women the other Sunday. Employees led by prison guard Elsa Martorillas, teacher Jeanefer “Guy” Llanes, and recreation officer Lulu Santos, as coordinated by Bureau of Correction officials Major Johnson Agbayani and Private First Class Lowela Alibania, gave us a tour of the facilities.

I had some interesting observations.

First stop – the mothers’ ward. It is a room of about five or six single beds for the exclusive use of pregnant prisoners. Since no conjugal visits -- actually, no male visitors -- are allowed in the facility, all the women there conceived while they were still outside.

The mothers are assigned plastic dressers on which to put their grooming items. There are medical personnel on standby. The sheets over the mattresses contain drawings of cartoon characters. There are books and magazines to leaf through.

Gina* is 34 and five months heavy with her fourth child. Her three other kids are in the care of her mother. She is in prison for child abuse – a trumped-up charge, she insists, of her husband’s mistress.

“This pregnancy is difficult because of the stress of my condition,” Gina says. “I think about my other children all the time.” Gina can perhaps be consoled that she would be with her newborn a full year before she is supposed to turn the baby over to her mother, or other relatives.

In a nearby section are the drug offenders. One of them, Karen,* is 30, mother of two and serving a life sentence for drug dealing. She has not seen her two children in seven years.

Amelia*, with short silver hair, is eloquent, confident and knowledgeable. A certified public accountant, she has been in jail for more than 20 years. She looks forward to being a free woman at the end of this year.

Not far ahead is the school room – with wooden desks, books, notebooks and other supplies. Teacher Guy, one of our guides, has been teaching here for three years. The Correctional is an accredited provider of Alternative Learning Program of the Department of Education. On the floor that day are five or six inmates engaged in beadwork – key chains, coin purses in the form of slippers, animals, even the Philippine flag.

Further down, there is a library inmates can go to when they want to read or borrow books. There is an entire edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as computers for those who wish to be literate. While there is of course no Internet access, some inmates are allowed to use Skype, under supervision, to communicate with their loved ones.

Outside the library is a salon. Trained inmates offer haircuts, manicures, pedicures, hot oil treatment, even massages at prices lower than what you see on the streets. The next building is the livelihood center where inmates display their beadwork, bags, baskets, vases, artificial plants. Some visitors admire the work so much they return to order in bulk.

Prison guard Elsa says the prisoners are allowed to keep a maximum of P1,000 in their pockets. If they are able to save extra money, it is put in a trust fund which they can ask to be sent to their families.

The inmates stay in double deckers, with mattresses and comfortable-looking sheets. The food budget is P50 per prisoner per day, covering three meals. This gives the inmates a diet of vegetables and occasional fish. Anything extra is brought to them by their families.

I can imagine a more desolate life in urban slums.

We end our tour in the administrative office. A maximum security inmate whom everybody calls Mommy and who can comfortably shift from English to Tagalog takes our picture.

The New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa, for the male inmates, is decidedly tougher to manage, says Agbayani. Of course, too, there have been recurring top-level scandals where officials are accused of special treatment of high-profile inmates or questionable spending of funds. Guard Elsa, for her part, says petty fights -- usually about money and other personal issues – and attempts to escape are realities they have to deal with.

But perhaps the best testament of how the women’s prison lives up to its name – correctional – is the sight of Teacher Guy’s two-year-old daughter Aya dancing and playing with the inmates. Employees are given the option to live within the correctional compound, and Guy has availed her family of this. Now Aya has an entire compound of doting surrogate aunts – blurring the line between those inside and outside, showing how important having someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to enables convicted women to reform themselves and dream of the day they walk out of prison.

*names have been changed.