MANILA — Rosemarie Santiago was four months pregnant when she walked into prison. She left more than a year later as a mother who had spent just one day with her child.
She was taken to a Manila hospital to give birth to her son Jericho. The next day her siblings claimed him, and she returned behind bars. She would not see him for another nine months.
“When I came back, he was so thin,” said Santiago, who was arrested in 2018 on drug charges. “I kept thinking about what could have happened if I had not been arrested.”
Santiago is among hundreds of young mothers who give birth while in government custody in the Philippines, where the poor can wait up to a decade for a trial. Some women tend to their children in dismal conditions, sometimes handcuffed to their hospital beds. Others, like Santiago, surrender the child to family.
The most prominent recent case is that of activist Reina Mae Nasino, whose baby River died of pneumonia in October. The spectacle of the funeral, with a 23-year-old mother cuffed and unable to wipe her tears, was seen by critics of President Rodrigo Duterte as a jarring portrait of diminishing rights in the country. Duterte’s expanding crackdowns on drugs has sharply increased prison populations and left an estimated 25,000 people dead — drawing criticism from rights activists around the world. Nasino is charged with the possession of illegal weapons, which she denies.
The national Bureau of Jail Management and Penology recorded more than 1,600 pregnant detainees and 485 births in the past two years. Around 80 percent of the women face cases related to drugs, said medical officer Paul Borlongan.
Drug-related charges against women jumped to more than 15,000 from 9,000 in 2015. Many are arrested alongside their partners and families, according to the Commission on Human Rights.
At least one other death of a detained activist’s child was reported this year. Human rights advocates argue that babies have higher chances of survival if they are not separated from their mothers. The World Health Organization recommends at least six months for breastfeeding.
But rules in the jail management bureau manual cap a mother and baby’s time together at one month. Anything more must be approved by a court. Many facilities enforce separation after only a day, citing health concerns for the child.
The treatment of incarcerated mothers is largely “prison-specific, judge-specific, warden-specific,” said Inez Feria, director of NoBox Philippines, an organization advocating for drug policy reform. NoBox has supported calls to release mothers and other vulnerable people to decongest jails.
At the Correctional Institution for Women, mothers can spend up to a year with their children. As the only national prison for women, it can set different rules than the one-month limit for newborns that applies in most other detention facilities.
When The Washington Post visited in February, three young women and their babies shared a space called the “mothers’ ward,” across the hall from the cramped dorms of fellow inmates. The room had five beds — two mothers recently checked out — a shared bathroom, a pantry and a shelf of toys.
Superintendent Virginia Mangawit said a separate facility would still be ideal. They are always in need of bed space. The prison, built for 1,500 inmates, holds more than 3,000.
Santiago, the former detainee, said she was not involved in drugs but pleaded guilty on the advice of authorities to avoid a longer wait for trial. By the time she walked free in 2019, Jericho’s father had left.
Bureau of Jail Management and Penology spokesman Xavier Solda defended the one-month cap for new mothers to be with their babies. “[It] is in the best interest of the child given the atmosphere, the health risks, on the part of the baby,” he said. “Are [critics] really saying that it’s more okay to stay in a jail, given the conditions in our jails, rather than at home with a family?”
But human rights advocates say the Philippines is in violation of the “Bangkok Rules,” guidelines from the United Nations on the treatment of women in detention. Under these requirements, determining the length of a mother and child’s time together must be “made in the best interests of the child.”
The rules also say cuffing mothers even during the transfer to a hospital “[violates] international standards,” and every effort should be made to give pregnant women noncustodial sentences, among other recommendations on the facilities and health services that should be available.
In the Philippines, the Commission on Human Rights reports inconsistency in access to maternal health services. “None of the women mentioned availability of postnatal care or services for those experiencing postpartum depression,” it said. Only 37 out of 84 women’s dormitories have a breastfeeding room.
Raymund Narag, prison reform advocate and assistant professor at Southern Illinois University, said the lack of physical and legal structures forces bureau employees in the Philippines to come up with individual solutions. Jail officers sometimes convert their offices to nursing spaces or pool donations with the help of other detainees. At the national penitentiary, a prison employee adopted an inmate’s child.
“Sometimes those coping mechanisms benefit other people but don’t benefit others,” said Narag, a former detainee himself, spending seven years in jail on murder charges for which he was eventually cleared. “You need new guidelines to deal with the concrete situation, not idealistic ones.”
Experts suggest that these gaps be addressed through a new law, formal guidelines from the country’s Supreme Court and revisions to the jail management manual.
Officials told The Post an interagency memorandum that would streamline rules and probably extend the time allotted for mother and child is under review. The Health Department hopes it will pass within the year. A Philippines Senate bill meant to aid incarcerated parents has been pending at the committee level since last year.
The issue can be personal for bureau employees. Hannah Nario-Lopez, a University of the Philippines assistant professor who conducts research and skills training in jails, says some female guards expressed frustration at online vitriol received after the Nasino case.
“At the end of the day, all women suffer here,” she said. “[Anger at the] cruelty of the state, I think, should [be] directed to the critique of the system, lack of institutional support … rather than personal attacks on the officers.”
In one case last May, jail guard Sallie Tinapay — who was nursing her own 8-month-old at the time — was assigned to watch over a detainee after childbirth. When the inmate could not produce milk, she fed the baby from her own breast.
“It was like she didn’t want to breastfeed,” she recalled. “She was thinking that they would be separated anyway.”
The mother, who authorities did not identify for her privacy, could not secure a court permit that would prolong her hospital stay. Social services picked up the infant, and a relative claimed her later, Tinapay said.
The inmate has been released, jail management said.
“I hoped she would be set free,” Tinapay said, “so she can take good care of her child.”