For the past 12 years, Sherryna Lorenzo has worn the same yellow uniform with the word “inmate” printed on its back. It was a generic identity the 47-year-old Filipino mother of five was forced to carry when she was convicted of illegal recruitment in 2005.
She now shares space with 181 other detainees at the Mandaue City Jail Female Dormitory in Cebu province in Central Visayas, Philippines.
But Lorenzo starts and ends her day differently from her peers. A member of her dorm’s “lipstick brigade,” she puts on colorful lipstick as she leads her fellow detainees in their daily tasks.
As part of the brigade, she checks on her dormmates’ trial schedules and follows up their status in courts. It’s a responsibility that has given her a sense of purpose she never thought she would find behind bars.
Lorenzo is one of 12 paralegal aides in the local jail who have been trained to render legal assistance to fellow inmates.
“Before I was detained, I thought I already knew everything there was to learn about our legal processes. When we became paralegal aides, I realized there was so much more to learn—for ourselves and for others,” Lorenzo said.
A report published in 2017 by the London-based Institute for Criminal Policy Research described the growth of female prison populations in the world – with the Philippines, Brazil and Indonesia experiencing a sharp increase since the institute’s women imprisonment list was first published in 2006.
According to the 2017 World Female Imprisonment List, the total female prison population in the Philippines was 12,658 in 2016, with a female prison population rate of 12.4 (or 12.4 women imprisoned per 100,000 Filipinos). This is in sharp contrast to the steady rate of 8.3 for the country in the last two reports.
Mandaue City Jail is one of the most congested female dormitories in the Philippines’ jail system, with a congestion rate of 883 percent versus the national congestion rate of 555 percent. Inmates occupy much less than the 4.7 square meters minimum cell area prescribed by the United Nations per head. Following that standard, a cell in the local jail should have only 19 inmates.
For both human rights advocates and jail officials, the continued congestion shows that prisons are a last priority in this country of some 105 million people.
“We’re depending on the national budget, and of course, we’re the least priority of the national government because we’re only incurring expenses without expected returns,” said Jail Senior Inspector Stephanny Salazar, Mandaue City Jail warden of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). The bureau, a government agency attached to the Department of Interior and Local Government, is tasked to manage district, city and municipal jails all over the Philippines.
Jail congestion is worsened by the frequent postponement of hearings in local courts because of the lack of time and other factors. Women, whose main offenses are usually low-level property or drug-related crimes, often find themselves trapped in years of incarceration in these crowded cells. Some of them spend five to eight years awaiting their sentences because of the frequent rescheduling of court proceedings.
It was within this context that Lorenzo realized the importance of access to legal aid inside the jail. When the paralegal training was introduced in Mandaue in 2015, she immediately volunteered.
“Initially, I found it difficult to accept that I would spend my life in prison. But when we were trained to become paralegals, I realized there was a purpose for my being in jail. And that was to help others obtain their freedom,” she said.
Legal first aid
On a Thursday morning, the inmates of the Cebu City Jail Female Dormitory found themselves gathered in a circle singing ‘If You’re Not Here’ by the ’70s boy band Menudo.
It was their farewell song to Renefe Baliuag, who served as the mother they thought they never needed behind bars. She was being transferred to the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong City, in the Philippine capital, to serve her life sentence for human trafficking.
Just like in Mandaue, the City Jail in Cebu, some four kilometers away, is congested, with more than 600 inmates occupying space meant for only 60.
The cities of Mandaue and Cebu are two of the three highly urbanized cities in the Central Visayas region, located in the largest island in the Philippines. According to national prison data, Central Visayas ranks third among the regions with the highest number of incarcerated females.
Legal assistance could certainly help those whose cases have been overlooked, and in the process, decongest jails in the country.
Jail, said the 55-year-old Baliuag, has brought out the goodness in her. She could be a decent human being after all, she added.
Like Lorenzo, Baliuag and 24 others in the female dorm have become beneficiaries of the paralegal program initiated by the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation (HLAF), a local rights group, in partnership with the BJMP.
“I’m happy to have served as a paralegal aide because I got the chance to help my dorm mates. When I enter the Correctional Institute, I will proudly bring my diploma from the paralegal program and share my knowledge with the inmates there,” Baliuag said.
“I was given a life sentence, and I thought there was no more hope for me. But the paralegal program taught me that I still have a second chance,” she said.
The paralegal manual of HLAF defines the primary responsibility of paralegals, who are volunteers among the inmates, as bringing the legal concerns of other inmates to jail officials.
The paralegals undergo a series of training sessions based on four modules: pillars of the criminal justice system, rights of the accused, criminal procedures and basic criminal law. Lawyers and law students conduct training sessions inside prison premises for a month, with follow-up sessions upon the request of the inmates.
Cathy Alvarez, program coordinator with the London-based International Drug Policy Consortium, has seen firsthand what it means to become a woman deprived of liberty. An alternative lawyer – a lawyer who empowers communities through legal literacy – she initiated the implementation of the paralegal program in the central cities of Mandaue, Cebu and Lapu-Lapu in 2014.
The program was first implemented by HLAF in local jails of the National Capital Region, as the Philippine capital is officially called in the country’s administrative system, and its positive output led to its replication in other regions.
By providing a “mini law school” inside the jail, Alvarez connected with the inmates and gave them a new sense of dignity – empowering them so they could empower others. “They must be willing and able to help their fellow detainees. Because it’s supposed to be a voluntary (job) and they should be paralegals not for their cases only. They must also represent their cells. It’s like having a legal first aid,” she said.
There are more than 146,000 detainees in local jails across the Philippines’ 17 administrative regions. They are the so-called “untried prisoners,” said alternative lawyer Rommel Abitria, who is also HLAF executive director.
Abitria believes that at the core of alternative lawyering is an enabling environment that allows members of a vulnerable group to access, use and share information they can meaningfully apply in their everyday lives.
It operates with an understanding of the limitations of the legal system, and how helping the marginalized themselves learn how to maximize the law for their benefit could lessen their dependence on external legal assistance.
“A paralegal officer inside a congested jail or a public attorney handling 20 to 40 cases won’t be able to monitor everyone’s legal needs in a day,” Abitria said. “But if we provide the inmates with basic knowledge of the law and their rights, they will know how to give their fellow inmates a chance at freedom. It would be easier to point out who among their peers would need legal assistance the most.”