LIFE IN JAIL: Fifty women and a 14-year-old girl, Ranilyn Geronimo,
share this cell in Manila's Navotas Muncipal Jail. Ranilyn is charged with
stealing a fish, worth about a dollar. Philippine officials say the city's
jails on average are filled to six times their capacity.
June 6, 2005 Los Angeles Times
Philippine Prisons' Crushing Problem
As poverty leads to a surge in thefts, jails are bursting. Children and adults
share cells, often awaiting trial beyond the time they'd likely serve.
By Richard C. Paddock, Times Staff Writer
MANILA — Ranilyn Geronimo spent her 14th birthday locked in a jail cell
with 50 women. Two months later, she is still there. The cell is so crowded
that the prisoners sleep on the floor packed tight in rows, all of them lying
on their left side. During the day, the temperature routinely soars above 100
degrees. Her best friends are accused murderers.
Her crime: stealing a fish.
Ranilyn, boyish-looking with her hair cut short, was caught at the Manila
fishing port and taken to the Navotas Municipal Jail about four months ago. She
says her family is so poor that she was eating only one meal a day before her
arrest. Her bail was set at $37, but no one she knows has that kind of
At the jail, sunlight filters through small, grimy windows
high in the walls of cells the size of a large bedroom. Hammocks hang from the
bars like spider webs. Some of the prisoners have red sores all over their arms
and legs. A few inmates cough from tuberculosis. During the month's highest
tides, seawater seeps inside, sometimes rising as high as the prisoners'
"When I think of freedom," Ranilyn said, "I just want to
Across the Philippines, growing economic hardship and
widespread poverty have triggered a sharp increase in property crimes,
particularly theft. The number of arrests has soared and the volume of
prisoners has skyrocketed far beyond the capacity of the jail system.
Federal rules call for juveniles to be housed separately from
adults, but the requirement is widely ignored. Minors are frequently kept in
detention centers with adults, and often in the same cell.
The court system is so clogged that some prisoners spend more
time in jail awaiting trial than they would serve if they could get before a
judge, plead guilty and be sentenced.
"Thousands of children in jail in the Philippines are daily
subjected to violence and trauma which should not allow any of us to sleep at
night," said Nicholas Alipui, UNICEF representative to the Philippines, who
backs legislation that would require separate detention facilities for
In February, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, acknowledged
the appalling state of the country's jails as she defended her decision not to
carry out executions.
"You know, given our conditions in jail, [being imprisoned]
is a fate worse than death," she said.
Increasingly, Filipinos are holding Arroyo accountable for
the country's continuing economic slide and the widespread corruption that
bleeds the government of resources to provide basic services.
"What kind of president would not be helping children in
jail?" asked Ranilyn, who turned 14 on April 4. "Some inmates get sick and
don't get medicine. Why isn't she helping?"
The Philippine economy, once one of the strongest in Southeast Asia, has
declined steadily over the last few decades. Today, a third of the labor force
is either unemployed or has found work overseas. Poverty is so extreme in some
parts of the country that the child malnutrition rate exceeds that of North
Korea, according to figures released by UNICEF last month.
Arroyo, who took office with military support in 2001 and was
elected to keep her job last year, is facing mounting calls to step down. In
recent months, it is believed that a group of active and retired military
officers have been quietly organizing an effort to topple her.
"We are ripe for another coup," said Rex Robles, a retired
navy commodore and intelligence officer who is now a security analyst.
Since Arroyo has come to power, the number of economic crimes
has soared even as violent crimes have declined slightly, according to
Philippine National Police statistics.
From 2000, the year before Arroyo took office, to 2004,
thefts increased by 44%, police figures show. During the same period, the rate
of violent offenses, including murder, rape and assault, dropped from 2.73 per
100,000 people to 2.46, records show.
Many of the thefts are small, often just enough to provide
something to eat. But for the destitute, getting caught can lead to months
Aneza Marivic de la Cruz has been locked up at the Quezon
City Female Dorm since October on charges that she shoplifted a Milo energy
drink and four small bottles of Head & Shoulders shampoo from a convenience
The 37-year-old admits putting the items in a shopping bag
and trying to walk out of the store. They were worth 491 pesos, or barely $9.
She said she planned to sell them so she could buy rice for her husband and two
daughters, 4 and 11.
The typical sentence for petty theft in the Philippines is
six months. De la Cruz has already spent seven months in jail waiting for her
case to be heard. Her bail was set at $92.
"No one could raise that in my family, because we are very
poor," said De la Cruz, whose family has had little to live on since her
husband lost his job in 1999.
Clean and brightly lighted, the Quezon City facility is one
of Manila's better jails. Designed for 84 inmates, it houses 581.
According to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology,
jails in the city on average are holding more than six times their stated
capacity. The Makati City Jail in Manila's wealthy financial district is the
most crowded, operating at 15 times its intended capacity.
At the squalid Navotas jail, the shortage of funding is
obvious. Here, 560 inmates are crammed into a facility built for 63. Four years
ago, the jail held 200. The warden, Deogracias Tapayan, points out that the
jail is so crowded that each inmate has less than 4 square feet of space.
During the day, most of the prisoners sit crowded together on
the floor in their dimly lighted cells, sometimes watching videos, sometimes
doing nothing. Other inmates hang out in the long corridor between the rows of
cells, which doubles at night as an overflow sleeping area. Many are awaiting
trial. Others are serving sentences of up to three years.
Grimy electric fans provide small relief from the heat. When
the power goes out, as it often does, the prisoners fan themselves with pieces
of cardboard. The government has banned karaoke night, an inmate favorite, in
all jails to save on the cost of electricity.
Outside, the most trusted male and female prisoners mix
together in a small courtyard, where they cook for the other inmates over open
fires, bathe, wash laundry, give each other haircuts and meet with visitors.
Others are allowed out for a short period once a day. The prisoners eat three
times a day, usually rice with a sprinkling of fish or vegetables.
Among the prisoners at Navotas are 18 juveniles, of which
Ranilyn is the only girl.
The boys, who are 15 to 17, are housed with 10 young men who
were arrested as juveniles but turned 18 while awaiting trial on charges
including theft, glue sniffing and murder. Some of them have been in jail for
as long as a year and a half.
One older inmate, an accused rapist in his 50s, is assigned
to live in the cell and watch over the boys.
The cell has two bunks and no window, but with only 28
prisoners, it is the least crowded in the jail. Most of the boys sleep on the
concrete floor on pieces of cardboard and plastic sheeting.
A Family History
Among them is Robert Laurel, who turned 15 last month. He was scrounging fish
from the Navotas Fish Port in January when he was arrested on suspicion of
Robert said his 12-year-old brother, Luis, died after he was
jailed in the same cell in December 2003. Luis was serving a six-month sentence
for stealing a watch. A jail official said the cause of death was edema.
Robert, who left school after the first grade, has a wispy
mustache that makes him appear older than he is. He has a nasty scar on his
cheek that looks like it was made by a knife. Robert said he was so drunk on
cheap gin, he doesn't remember how it happened.
He said he was arrested twice before for stealing, first a
necklace and then some Levis. The charges were dropped both times, but he
admits to the thefts. This time he maintains he was unfairly arrested and plans
to fight the charge, although he has already been in jail for nearly five
Robert said he often went to the port to help the fishing
crews sort through their catch. For his efforts, the men would slip him fish of
such poor quality it would otherwise have been sold to make fish sauce. He
would take the fish to feed his family, selling some to neighbors so he could
On the day of his arrest, he said, he was leaving with about
10 pounds of fish in a plastic bag when he was stopped by a police officer
unfamiliar with his arrangement. Robert says he cannot name the crew member who
gave him the fish without getting him in trouble. He hopes to get a court
hearing next month.
He said he would prefer to be kept in a cell with only
juveniles, but there have been no problems with the man assigned to look after
"We call him Father," Robert said.
The boys' cell is at the end of the corridor directly across
from the women's, which has six bunks, one toilet and a stove for its 51
The men are even worse off: They're packed 120 to a cell.
Yearning for Freedom
Ranilyn says she feels lucky because she has a sleeping spot at the end of the
row facing a wall, not in the middle.
"The whole floor is covered with people," she said. "You have
to decide which side you are going to sleep on because you can't switch in the
But there is really no debate. The cell's tradition is to
sleep on the left.
Ranilyn has been befriended by three women, two accused
murderers and an alleged drug dealer. She says the women protect her and have
taught her how to cope in jail. She wears two elastic wristbands, one pink and
one blue, they gave her for her birthday. When the power went out recently,
Ranilyn stood fanning one of her friends as she lay on a lower bunk, reading a
magazine with photos of scantily clad women.
Ranilyn, who left school after the fourth grade, lived with
an aunt in Navotas before her arrest. She said she was hungry all the time but
avoided the habit of glue sniffing, common among children in the area.
"That's not my vice," she said. "My vice is cigarettes and
Sometimes, she would go to the wharf in the hope of finding
food. Hanging out there in February, she was watching men haul tubs of fish
when she saw her opportunity.
A fish fell out of a bin onto the ground, and she walked
over, kicked it away and picked it up.
Moments later, a security guard hit her in the back of the
neck with another fish. She said the guard beat her with the fish until she was
black and blue, shoved her face down on a crate of fish, then arrested her.
Ranilyn would like to plead guilty to stealing the fish,
which was worth $1.15, but can't until a judge hears her case.
"I don't understand why I can't be free without bail," she
said. "It's a small offense."
When she gets out, she said, all she wants to do is find a
little peace by locking herself inside her aunt's house.
"I have a goal now," she said. "Not to come back here."