Asia-Pacific, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

PHILIPPINES: Prisoners Find Their E-Families

Art Fuentes and Kara Santos

MANILA, Oct 27 2011 (IPS) - For the first time since giving birth in prison 13 years ago, Sarah, an inmate in the Philippines’ largest detention centre for female convicts, saw her daughter via Skype video chat in her prison cell.

Sarah (not her real name) was convicted over a decade ago for selling illegal drugs at a time when she did not know she was pregnant.

Three weeks after giving birth in Quezon City Jail, she sent her daughter to live with her relatives in Iloilo – a province on an island roughly 480 kilometres away from Manila. Her only communication with her family was through snail mail, which reached her about once every three months.

But two weeks ago, with the launch of a virtual visitation programme in the prison, Sarah finally got to see her youngest daughter and speak to her two eldest children for the first time in over a decade.

“I am happy that my prayers have been answered and they are all growing up to be good kids,” Sarah told IPS, unable to hold back her tears at finally being able to see and talk to her children.

The “e-dalaw” (Filipino for visit) or electronic prison visit programme, allows prisoners to communicate with their families and loved ones via Skype video chat. Before the e-visit programme was implemented on Oct. 13, Sarah, like many inmates languishing in Manila’s overcrowded prisons, had endured years without any visits.

“It is a step towards making prisons more humane,” social welfare officer Cherry Huet told IPS, as she watched inmates talk to their families and loved ones on the computer via Skype.

Huet, who works at the Correctional Insititute for Women (CIW), spent the past weeks interviewing inmates at the institute to find out who among them would benefit most from the new service.

According to the Bureau of Corrections, up to 40 percent of inmates never get visited by their families. This is especially true for inmates who hail from provinces far from the capital Manila, where the jail is located.

The transport fare and cost of lodging coupled with other expenses make it prohibitively expensive for families to visit their convicted loved ones even once a year.

For instance, Sarah’s family would need to take a 20-hour trip via inter-island ferry and find a place where they could stay for at least two nights in order to visit her.

For Filipinos born into very close-knit families, being able to keep in touch with relatives, even through virtual means, is very important.

Since Internet access has been steadily penetrating all parts of the country, the e-visit service can be utilised even by family members living in very remote areas. Internet cafes have popped up in remote provinces, providing people with access to affordable virtual technologies such as free video calls and online chat.

Prison authorities say the new electronic prison visit system will ease inmates’ loneliness and help them better reintegrate with society once they are released.

However, the e-visits have to be brief, as thousands of inmates share the few Internet-enabled computers in the jails and prisons.

Quezon City Jail, where the programme was piloted, is only equipped with five computers with webcams and Internet connections, for more than 3,000 inmates locked up in the 3,000 square metre lot.

The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) donated the computers, while the Quezon City Jail administration has pledged to shoulder the 20-dollar monthly WiFi connection fee.

Officials of the Quezon City Jail believe this programme will not only allay homesickness and depression among the detainees but also curb the smuggling of weapons and other contraband into the jails by lessening the number of physical visitors allowed.

Many of the inmates in the Quezon City Jail have been convicted for poverty-related crimes such as robbery, theft and shoplifting.

According to Jail Superintendent Joseph Vela, the jail has an overcrowding rate of 400 percent. The virtual visits are an effort to make life behind bars a bit more bearable and help in the reform of inmates.

“We need to be more responsible to those we put behind bars. Though we aim to punish by depriving a criminal of his liberty, we do not inend to strip him of his humanity,” said Marlon Bosantog, a representative for the OSG.

Jail staff monitor every call for security reasons, particularly to ensure that nothing illegal is discussed during the online chat sessions.

Officials say that ageing or sick inmates will be given priority access to e-visits.

When the e-dalaw project was first launched, chosen inmates were allowed to talk to their families for up to half an hour. But prison authorities say that as more inmates avail themselves of the service, the duration of each prisoner’s electronic visit will need to be shortened.

However, for prisoners who have counted the years to see the faces and hear the voices of their loved ones, waiting in line for a precious few minutes on Skype is a minor inconvenience.

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