BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Of Pink curtains, Teddy Bears and Women Drug Dealers

DAVAO - Rock-and-roll songs blare from the loudspeakers. The band plays deafening music but this is not enough to drown out the feeling of deep, profound sadness that pervades the air.

It is a sadness that tries to hide behind Pink curtains and brown teddy bears, or life size Hello Kitties and longhaired dolls that fill the different bunk beds in this prison institution for some 1,000 female inmates.

Julie is 47 years old. She has seven children but unless they visit her, there is no way she will see, hug or kiss them or simply ask how they have been. She is serving a life sentence for being caught in possession of illegal drugs.

She says she just happened to be in the same car with the friend who was responsible for the drugs. It was one cold night, nine years ago. She recalls that fateful day with ease but her voice shakes when I ask about her children.

She gazes far away in silence.

She is on her bed. I am seated across her.

Rosanna, another inmate, walks toward us to listen. Her smile fades as she hears Julie talk about her children.

Rosanna’s story is stranger than fiction.  A judge sentenced her, her husband and her three sons for murder. Her husband died in jail. Like her, her three sons are still serving their respective prison terms. She insists she is innocent. Rosanna is 63 years old.

Her eyes could not conceal the pain.

Rosanna and Julie are only two of the brave and resilient women serving prison terms at the Correctional Institute for Women (CIW) here at the Davao Penal Colony.

The institution is different from other prison facilities in the Philippines that I have visited. I have seen a hell-like place where inmates are cramped like sardines in a rusty can and one that smells of trash and human waste.

Nestled right in the middle of 6,000 hectares of Banana plantation, the CIW looks more like a university than a prison. One will notice the little red flowers and green plants that surround the facility more than the piercing barbed wires.

The rooms are clean and the bunk beds are neatly arranged. There are bed curtains of different colors and designs and bundles of stuff toys, dolls and trinkets on most of the beds. And today, the inmates have prepared a program to welcome some visitors from Manila.

Yet, as in other prison facilities, there is that same sadness and profound pain that lingers, that never goes away.

There is that longing for home, a desperate wish to be able to press a reverse button, to be anywhere but here.

I am in awe of their strength and resilience, of how they struggle to survive. It reverberates louder than the music playing on the background as I walk out of the prison compound.