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InFocus for National Women’s Month: The women behind the ‘Humanity Behind Bars Programme’ in Cebu

InFocus for National Women’s Month: The women behind the ‘Humanity Behind Bars Programme’ in Cebu City



At the height of the pandemic in 2021, lawyers Mary Grace Hermosa Casano and Michelle Mendez-Palmares of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines Cebu City Chapter (IBP Cebu City) sat in the Cebu City Justice Zone (CCJZ) Meeting when they heard of the colossal ordeal faced by the courts and jails as the cases of drug offenders steadily rose from 80 to 100 cases every month per drug court or a total of 400 to 500 cases per month. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lockdown is a ticking time bomb for jails that are already bursting at their seams. They both knew that they needed to do something, and they needed to do it fast to prevent the inevitable collapse of the jail facility.

After that meeting, then-former CCJZ Convenor and Executive Judge Macaundas Hadjirasul called Atty. Casano for support from the IBP. “It takes women to do the job (of easing the jails),” Judge Hadjirasul told Atty. Casano. Armed with trust from the courts, Atty. Casano, with the IBP Cebu City Chapter, conceptualised the “Humanity Behind Bars” programme, which was implemented in 2021 but formally launched with the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement on 7 April 2022. It was the brilliant idea of the current convenor of the CCJZ, Executive Judge Marlon Jay G. Moneva, to include the CCJZ as a partner.

As a former researcher and R&D consultant, Atty. Casano thought that supporting court and jail decongestion must be evidence-based, first and foremost. She then tinkered with setting up a database - Online Legal Aid (OLA) Portals for their community-based legal aid and one for the Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDL). “We need data to be purposive and effective in supporting the courts and jails. Otherwise, we cannot measure how the IBP or CCJZ contributes to addressing the problem. Only when we can measure something can we improve it.” says Atty. Casano. By first developing OLA Portals and a PDL Data Management System, the IBP Cebu City conceptualised a set of integrated and holistic interventions for PDLs covering Cebu City, later known as the ‘Humanity Behind Bars’ programme.

The Humanity Behind Bars: Integrated Jail Decongestion and Management Program (Humanity Behind Bars) was conceptualised to promote the general welfare and protect the rights of PDL, ensure their reformation and reintegration conducive to and compliant with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (UNSMRTP), and institutionalise highly efficient and competent jail and penology services in Cebu City. Humanity Behind Bars consists of (1) a PDL Data Management System, a digital platform to inventory, monitor PDLs’ case status, decongest jails, and facilitate efficient jail facility management; (2) Oplan Bilis Laya, (3) Online Legal Aid and E-Telegal Konsulta, and (4) Law in Action/ Law Student Practitioners (LSPs) in Action which are various modes of integrated legal aid services to assist in the timely and immediate release of PDL who have fully served their sentence and eligible for probation, parole, good conduct time allowance recommendation, bail assistance, among others, conducted onsite or offsite depending on the entry restrictions imposed in the jails. Specifically, LSP in Action prepares certified LSPs of its partner law schools to acquire experiential learning and imbibe in them the heart for pro bono lawyering; (5) Jail Digital Infrastructure Reforms, which facilitated the installation of virtual or remote video conference facilities in Cebu City Jails through the donation of laptops (10 of which were through USC School of Law and Governance as funded by GOJUST II Programme), high-speed routers for improved internet connectivity and others, which are being used for videoconference hearings, online visitations (eDalaws), and alternative learning system (ALS) classes. In addition, construction materials were also donated for the construction of new VCH and ALS facilities in both dormitories, all in the interest of continuous and speedy trial amidst the COVID-19 pandemic; and (6) Project Bagong Buhay which provides pre-reintegration programs for PDLs through capacity building, psycho-social training, livelihood assistance and training, responsible citizenship training, voter-registration, PDL Paralegal training, and available healthcare and disease management program.

With the coordinative and collaborative work of the CCJZ, IBP Cebu City, in partnership with various actors, likewise provided support to PDLs, such as integrated legal aid with the IBP Cebu City, PAO lawyers, and LSPs; birth and other civil registration assistance necessary for PDLs' applications for parole and probation, through the Office of the Civil Registry, Philippine Statistical Authority, PhilSys, and DOJ Parole and Probation Office; Onsite Drug Dependency Examination (DDE) through the Department of Health (DOH) Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Centers (DOH-TRC); regular medical missions offering free medical consultations, blood pressure and blood sugar tests and monitoring, dental and optical services as well as free medicines and vitamins through the DOH and Cebu City Health Department; voter registrations through COMELEC where 927 male PDL and 419 female PDL were registered; and Access to Justice Dialogues and Lectures with CCJZ stakeholders. As a result, the Humanity Behind Bars programme of the IBP Cebu City Chapter managed to lower the congestion of the Cebu City Jail male dorm from 1300% to 1082% and the female dorm from 414% to 390%. From April 2021 to December 2022. Data-backed achievements include 2069 PDL clients assisted, 6,219 ++ legal, developmental, and humanitarian services rendered, 1047 case follow-ups done, and more than 163 facilitated PDL releases.

With these accomplishments, the Humanity Behind Bars programme was hailed as the Most Outstanding Legal Aid Programme during the 19th National Convention of Lawyers in the Philippines and the 50th Founding Anniversary of the IBP, along with Atty. Casano as the National Most Outstanding Legal Aid Lawyer for the second time in a row or straight four years and the IBP Cebu City Chapter as runner up for Best IBP Chapter. Aside from these, IBP Cebu City bagged two other Outstanding Legal Aid Practice Awards for its Colors for Second Chance: Holistic Changes for Operation Second Chance for the Children-In-Conflict with the Law; and, Integrated Developmental Legal Aid for the Indigenous Peoples, Most Innovative Online Legal Aid System for its ten eSystems developed by Atty. Casano, which include the OLA and the PDL Data Management System, among others, and a Governor’s Choice-Outstanding Legal Aid Lawyer for the Region for Fr. Domingo Delos Angeles, the main anchor of its top-rated radio program Ikaw ug ang Balaod, which has an average of 66,000 audiences reached.

Asked what keeps her going despite the challenges in the Philippine justice system, Atty. Casano says, “becoming a lawyer is a privilege to serve ‘the least, the lost and last’ in society. Practising law comes with great responsibility to liberate the oppressed, to advance the cause of the underserved and unserved, to empower the disadvantaged and marginalised; to act with competence, conscience, courage, honesty, humility, and integrity, and to work for justice, equality, and meaningful freedoms.” She also accounts for the inspiring and phenomenal leadership and support given by Atty. Mendez-Palmares to pursue these meaningful programmes. “We find inspiration, rather than competition, in the company of equally competent women, bringing out the best in each of us and allowing fellow women to spring up the field”, quips Atty. Grace.

Atty. Grace and Michelle shared that even women PDLs are instrumental in jail releases. Through IBP’s paralegal training in partnership with Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation (HLAF) and StreetLawPH, 28 women PDLs became paralegals and have supported their fellows in jail. “Women PDLs are very thorough, and because of this, we, in the IBP, can support them better,’ said Atty. Mendez-Palmares. “There is even one female PDL who facilitated 21 PDL releases, a bittersweet story inside jails,” she added.

Attorneys Casano, Mendez-Palmares, and the IBP Cebu City Chapter continue challenging themselves to improve its programme. Upcoming programs include the community bail bond project, solar energisation of male and female dorms funded by OPASCOR, and PDL Data Management x Crime Index Training for Jail Officers and PDL Paralegals through the GOJUST II Programme. Through the current workshop of the GOJUST II Programme on the use of the Crime Index to enhance crime and PDL data, the PDL Data Management System of the IBP Cebu City Chapter has been improved to include data on justice zones, ready for adoption and replication in the other justice zones in the country. In the January 2023 CCJZ meeting, Atty. Casano and the IBP Cebu City Chapter have been designated by the current convenor, Executive Judge Moneva, to lead a technical working group of the justice zone to create a cohesive PDL Data Management System in Cebu City, continuously contribute to the increase of PDL releases and eventually, better access to justice among the underserved, unserved, the poor, and the marginalised. In the following months, the Humanity Behind Bars Programme will be replicated in other cities of Cebu Province, such as Mandaue, Lapu-Lapu, and Talisay.

Atty. Casano is the newly elected Internal Vice President of the Cebu Lady Lawyers Association (CELLA), supporting alongside its first transgender President, Atty. Regal M. Oliva.

- Written by

Maricel Aguilar Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Specialist GOJUST II Programme

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