Can female inmates still be mothers in jail?

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Female inmates from the Iloilo City District Jail Female Dormitory make handmade 'Inday' dolls for an art project called "Hilway Art Products." The dolls reflect their life and their dreams for themselves and their families. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Mga sisters, sa pag dating ng panahon, makakalaya din ako.

Ang babae nasasaktan lalo gumaganda. Bakit? Para makahanap nang lalaki karapat dapat.

“Malandi man ang mata ko, stick to one ang puso ko.”

“Ang akon doll boy kay nadumdumduman ko ang akon nga bata kag I miss my son so much.”

These messages are written in a small, laminated paper dangling at the bottom of a tapestry where handmade dolls are displayed side-by-side, surrounded by intricate patterns. These ‘Inday’ dolls are made by female inmates from the Iloilo City District Jail Female Dormitory, working in collaboration with students from a fine arts organization under the University of San Agustin in Iloilo.

In the prison’s limited space, overflowing with bodies, these women are weaving stories of their own. Their dolls and beadwork reflect their life and their dreams for themselves and their families. One doll is a nurse because this mother wants her bunsong anak to be one in order to support their family. Another doll is wearing its maker’s ideal coming-of-age dress so she can relive her youth and “make better choices in order to change my future for the better.” There is also a doll named “Cinderella” because the artist wants to be a princess and marry a Prince Charming who would love and take care of her.

“The Inday Dolls are the voices of incarcerated women,” says project curator Ma. Rosalie Zerrudo, who is an assistant professor at the ​Fine Arts Major Organization (FAMO)​ at the University of San Agustin. “I asked questions, the women answered with objects. The hand-embroidered dolls are one of each kind. These are stories of their feelings, stories of families, stories of relationships, their hopes and dreams, throwbacks and even stories of their memories. The poetic text are powerful collective testaments of the unthinkable trauma in prison.”

Zerrudo remarks on the process as something that enables the women to transcend their angst and pain into tangible manifestations, “like phoenixes rising from the ashes, dancing in their lullabies” and recreating a new self.

The project, called “Hilway Art Products,” is traveling around the country, more recently in the Got Heart Gallery in Quezon City and the Museo Pambata. It will also be exhibited in New York and California this April and May.

3.jpg The project also has installations, such as the “Borda o'bra” tapestries that use bras as wings for the dolls. "The creative process of sewing, doodling, beading, and stitching is the organic performance of the everyday, where inner personal monologue intertwine with the conversations happening between women," says curator Ma. Rosalie Zerrudo. Photo courtesy of MA. ROSALIE ZERRUDO

“Human beings have infinite possibilities, tapping into the potentials of even incarcerated women could also mean digging into a gold mine of powerful creative force,” says Zerrudo. “Women in prison have so much time. This is an intervention to use that serving time for creative rehabilitation process.”

Aside from the Inday dolls, the project also has installations, such as a tree of dolls depicting the descendant traumas, experiences, and emotions from one woman to another, as well as a beadwork hammock to reflect the makeshift sleeping ‘facilities’ inside the prison. They also made “Borda o'bra,” tapestries that use bras as wings for the dolls, and “Hugot sa punda” embroidery, decorated with “hugot” phrases. There are also Hilway burloloys such as earrings and amulets.

The curator of the project talks to CNN Philippines Life about rehabilitation in the time of tokhang, inmates earning pabaon for their children, how the project has breathed a new life inside the female dorm, and the shared trauma and experiences of women. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Dolls, tapestries, and bead-work are often ascribed to womanhood. What do you think does this association and the work say about the female inmates?

Women tell their stories through their artworks. Women speak through their beadwork. The embroidered tapestry and accessory serve as voices of women. Inday Dolls are stories of objects, visual narratives of women artists and mothers in prison expressed in tapestry, collage, embroidery, and beadwork.

Inday means Miss or Mademoiselle as a personal endearment or relational name called before a name used by the Ilonggos in Panay region. Inday is significant in the geography as origin and identity of the product. The women naming and claiming their identity have a strong significance in the human stories of objects.   

The process made women express symbolic representation of their stories. The art process makes a difference in the lives of women in prison by creating new colors in their darkest times. Inday Dolls are not just mere objects but iconic portraits of the women, prison psychology, and collective memory, which revolves around their family and relationships.

The creative process of sewing, doodling, beading, and stitching is the organic performance of the everyday, where inner personal monologue intertwine with the conversations happening between women. The politics of space is often a major issue in the process of restorative art making. The objects are political statements in bringing together pieces of a dysfunctional system as a whole.

Majority of the cases of the Iloilo City District Jail Female Dorm are drug-related. Working on the project, how were they able to reflect on their situation, especially in light of the government's war on drugs?

​Some felt lucky that they are still alive inside the prison. Some felt they would have been found dead if they were outside. Some would say, “I would rather be inside than outside.” Some were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In general, being imprisoned is painful and unthinkable. Most were thankful that they embraced a new life. They have time to pray, to create art, and even rediscover a new person. Some felt they developed new relationships which became like a "family" to them.

Telling stories is like breathing in new life to a new self, a new body, a new way of life. Telling stories is like singing to one’s deep old wounds, tending to the pain, and caressing the calloused skins. Listening to one’s own story opens new arms embracing the old self.

1212.jpg The Hilway Art Project has created creative jobs and opportunities for almost 200 women who were involved in all the art-making process. Some of them earn regularly during the project making that they use to support their own family, especially for “baon” allowances and for school fees of their children. Pictured above: "Hugot sa Punda" embroidery. Photo courtesy of MA. ROSALIE ZERRUDO

Freedom In Prison, being a two-year project, so far, meant that the students involved are also changing. How has that transient nature of relationships affected the inmates?

The students were involved mostly as part of their class project. However as an organization member of FAMO (Fine Arts Major Organization), they are still able to pitch their idea and get funded to conduct their own workshop or develop a new art product.  

The students have deeply developed a kinship with the women whom they fondly call “ate” or “nanay.” Familiarity bridges the ease and comfort in the dealings with such creative process with the inmates. Though this affinity has certain professional distance, as the students are aware that they cannot engage on a personal level with the inmates beyond the workshop for security and legal concerns.  

How has the project been able to improve their situation and their mindset about "mothering behind bars"?

Mothering deeply carries the qualities of unconditional love. Mothering behind bars is the most liberating occupation when a woman finds a way to exercise her freedom to love her children. Prison is not a place for these women who left behind children and their families. Some of them are breadwinners and continue to earn inside the prison from washing clothes or giving massages to earn extra to continue to send their children to school. These women continue to mother behind bars.

Mothering behind bars can be a tricky trade for this women, as one mother once told me, she is the only breadwinner and she has to continue to earn money for the school allowance of her children. She is very happy to have earned a few thousand [pesos] that she has something to give to her children everytime they visit her in jail. These moving narratives serve as a turning point for me to conduct this arts-based research.

The Hilway Art Project has created creative jobs and opportunities for almost 200 women who were involved in all the art-making process. Some of them earn regularly during the project making that they use to support their own family, especially for “baon” allowances and for school fees of their children. The challenge now is how to [make] this social enterprise sustainable to provide steady jobs for the women.

This project has spent more than half a million from research funding from the University of San Agustin Iloilo, a competitive grant from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and as winner of the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative Seeds for the Future (YSEALI Seeds) funded by the U.S. Mission. 

Art is not just about making objects, or paintings, or products, it is seeing the unseen and creating a portrait of the soul.

How is the project able to expand the concept of “space” for the inmates inside prison?

The physical space shared by hundreds of growing numbers of inmates is a living reality of harsh human condition. On the other hand, a tight small space is shared with tolerance, compassion and love. There are contrasting overflows, the lows and highs of human existence. A room of strangers share an intense mental and emotional space which serves as a great venue for psychosocial intervention. With such a rich human resource, the prison with overflowing bodies becomes a complex scenario of live performance and role play.

Human creativity is boundless, and a synergy of women doing art together transforms the space into a supportive healing environment. The subtle experience of shared space is life weaving energies and emotions and minds into a nest of comfort and understanding. As the jail warden observed, when the women are occupied in art-making, the jail breathes a new sense of “peace and quiet” thus lessening or avoiding the bickering and menial fights and irritability caused by either menopausal syndrome, hypertension, anxiety, and depression.

The politics of space and body brings a crucial discourse in the prison as women navigate their own sense of freedom and expression. The storytelling creates a mental space which happens during the process of art-making through embroidery, beadwork, and the doodling of threads and pens.  

What are some of your insights over the two years that you have been involved in this project?

Freedom is likened to the oasis in the desert for a prisoner. Though precarious in context, this research found freedom inside prison. Women regained and reclaimed their own freedom through their self-expression. The one who loves is free. The one who sings is free. The one who paints is free. The women are not only prisoners. The women are not only mothers.  Women in prison are human “beings.”

I believe in storytelling as a powerful tool for cultural assertion and weapon for transformative education that is essential in this research as a healing art process. The results of this short engagement used the unconventional principles of art-making in the context of “stories of objects.” The most important part of the experience was the learning process with organic unfolding of the each woman narrative. Art is the power that gave life to every woman’s idea and vision.

I would like to quote [Clarissa Pinkola] Estes because her philosophy frames the intention of my work: “The ‘craft of making’ is an important part of the work … Art is important for it commemorates the season of the soul, or a special or tragic event in the soul’s journey. Art is not just for oneself, not just a marker of one’s own understanding. It is also a map for those who follow after us.” Art is not just about making objects, or paintings, or products, it is seeing the unseen and creating a portrait of the soul.

4.jpg "The art process makes a difference in the lives of women in prison by creating new colors in their darkest times. Inday Dolls are not just mere objects but iconic portraits of the women, prison psychology, and collective memory, which revolves around their family and relationships," says the curator of the project. Photo courtesy of MA. ROSALIE ZERRUDO

What are some of the stories from the participants that struck you while working with them?

I see Manang Kakay (not her real name) in her deepest sadness, remorseful of her actions, but nonetheless brave in facing her own realities. Prison has taught her many lessons in life. Prison gave her a new life, a new way of seeing, a new way of loving. A kind of freedom she never experienced when she was in the outside world. What women say about prison is strikingly interesting, for it is lonely and painful, but the same place gave them that hope, strength, and courage to face their own truth.

Manang Daday (not her real name), another young inmate would say, “If I’m not inside, I would have been found dead on the streets. It is better that I am alive inside. I have no life anyway outside. Here, I found a new family among my friends and I found a new me.”

Before, prison has a stigma for being such a notorious place, and though it has slowly transformed its programs, it is still not a place to dream of. 

One mother vowed to stop another generation of her family to end up in jail especially among her children. Her mother died in prison with two of her other siblings sharing the same jail while the other brothers and her father could not attend the wake for they were incarcerated in another prison facility.   

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To purchase or inquire more about the Inday dolls please contact the curator, Ma. Rosalie Zerrudo at maladaw@gmail.com.

The Inday dolls will be traveling next to New York from April 22 to 30 at the Purple Yam Restaurant (1314 Cortelyou Rd., Brooklyn, NY) and San Francisco from May 4 to 15 at the Bindlestiff Studio (185 6th St., San Francisco, California).