Winefreda Geonzon / FREE LAVA
( 1984 , Philippines )

...for giving assistance to prisoners and aiding their rehabilitation.

We find it futile to be criticising without offering alternatives, and we have proven countless times that people are by nature good. In our own work we see the beauty of reconciliation...


When she became the Legal Aid Director of the Philippines’ Bar in Cebu City in 1978, lawyer Winefreda Geonzon found herself confronted with the many injustices and abuses of the legal system which occurred during the martial rule years of the Marcos regime. People, including young children, were jailed without charge or trial; often they were imprisoned beyond their term, tortured and brutalised, or simply forgotten. In response, Geonzon setup the Free Legal Assistance Volunteers Association (FREELAVA) as a legal aid office for victims of human rights violations, prisoners who could not afford lawyers to act for them and people whose cases had implications for social justice.

Contact

Winefreda Geonzon Foundation Inc
Villalon Drive
East Capitol Hills
Cebu City 6000
PHILIPPINES

Biography

When she became the Legal Aid Director of the Philippines’ Bar in Cebu City in 1978, lawyer Winefreda Geonzon found herself confronted with the many injustices and abuses of the legal system which occurred during the martial rule years of the Marcos regime. People, including young children, were jailed without charge or trial; often they were imprisoned beyond their term, tortured and brutalised, or simply forgotten.

In response, Geonzon setup the Free Legal Assistance Volunteers Association (FREELAVA) as a legal aid office for victims of human rights violations, prisoners who could not afford lawyers to act for them and people whose cases had implications for social justice. FREELAVA sought to serve the many prisoners in these categories, firstly by seeking them out and then visiting them in jail, where its volunteers obtained first-hand experience of the appalling conditions to which inmates were subjected. These included poor or non-existent sanitary facilities, chronic overcrowding (in 1987, Cebu City’s main jail had almost three times the number of prisoners for which it was designed), concrete floors with no sleeping mats and little protection for inmates against assaults by fellow prisoners.

As its reputation grew, FREELAVA involved increasing numbers of lawyers, students and community groups in its work. A Documentation and Research Group gathered legal evidence for abused or wrongly imprisoned inmates, a Legal Services Group undertook the …

When she became the Legal Aid Director of the Philippines’ Bar in Cebu City in 1978, lawyer Winefreda Geonzon found herself confronted with the many injustices and abuses of the legal system which occurred during the martial rule years of the Marcos regime. People, including young children, were jailed without charge or trial; often they were imprisoned beyond their term, tortured and brutalised, or simply forgotten.

In response, Geonzon setup the Free Legal Assistance Volunteers Association (FREELAVA) as a legal aid office for victims of human rights violations, prisoners who could not afford lawyers to act for them and people whose cases had implications for social justice. FREELAVA sought to serve the many prisoners in these categories, firstly by seeking them out and then visiting them in jail, where its volunteers obtained first-hand experience of the appalling conditions to which inmates were subjected. These included poor or non-existent sanitary facilities, chronic overcrowding (in 1987, Cebu City’s main jail had almost three times the number of prisoners for which it was designed), concrete floors with no sleeping mats and little protection for inmates against assaults by fellow prisoners.

As its reputation grew, FREELAVA involved increasing numbers of lawyers, students and community groups in its work. A Documentation and Research Group gathered legal evidence for abused or wrongly imprisoned inmates, a Legal Services Group undertook their representation, and a Civic Assistance Team sought to provide for their basic needs in prison and their rehabilitation. This latter part of the work included cultural programmes, sports activities, literacy classes, limited economic assistance and a spiritual ministry.

By 1987, twenty-six community groups were involved in FREELAVA’s works, carrying out a triangular programme of crime prevention, free legal assistance and rehabilitation. In fact, martial law had been lifted in 1981, but the aggressive habits of some law enforcers had not changed. FREELAVA was able to negotiate some reforms, among other things permitting prisoners in the city jail to organise their own council to dialogue with the authorities.

Winefreda Geonzon’s legacy of community service passed to her associates, staff and volunteers when she died of cancer in 1990. They have continued to pursue her mission of helping the oppressed and under-privileged. FREELAVA has maintained its free legal aid to poor prisoners confined in various jails of Cebu Province and has expanded this to provide training for people on their basic legal rights. Paralegal clinics have been established in various depressed communities, bringing these services to people on their own doorsteps with the help of paralegal volunteers.

FREELAVA has also continued to provide formal educational assistance to more than 400 out-of-school children and young people, hand in hand with the financial assistance provided for the income-generating projects of their parents. These services are now working in 30 communities of Cebu City.

In 1995, FREELAVA established the Balay-Pasilungan, a temporary shelter and rehabilitation centre for released young offenders from the jail centres of the province of Cebu. In 2002, FREELAVA initiated a “Community-Based Prevention, Diversion/Mediation Program for Children in Conflict with the Law”. Through the project, Children’s Justice Committees have been established in some selected areas of Cebu City. These Child Justice Committees offer restorative justice, and send child offenders to perform community service or serve time at the Balay Pasilungan rather than in an adult prison. The Balay Pasilungan programme has been recognized by Save the Children and UNICEF as a pioneering and successful model that keeps children out of adult jails. FreeLAVA received one of the 2009 RAFI Triennial Awards – a prize for community development – for achieving positive results in their endeavor to offer a second chance to child offenders. In September 2013, the Cebu City Council enacted an ordinance naming a city street in the honour of Winefreda Geonzon.

 
 

FAQ about FREE LAVA

asked in 2005 answered by Josefina I. Paredes

1. Has the situation in Philippine prisons (Cebu province) improved since you received the award?

It has improved in some areas. There is already due process. One does not land in jail because of being charged of a crime; abuses committed against prisoners have been minimized. There is the perennial problem of overcrowded jails, poor sanitation, very low budget for food. For children in conflict with the law, there is already a center, separating them from adult prisoners. Cebu province has a new detention center that is big enough to house the prisoners; but the problem is the food, which prisoners often complain to be insufficient.

2. What does FREE LAVA do to prevent crime?

We conduct advocacy programs in the community (barangay) level on rights of the citizen esp. on the bill of rights. We work hand in hand with the PNP (Philippine National Police) in conducting advocacy and training of policemen in the proper way of handling prisoners especially children in conflict with the law, the different international standards, instruments in the treatment of prisoners etc. We have the diversion program for children in conflict with the law – training barangay officials in the conduct of the diversion program; and a rehabilitation program for children in conflict with the law at the “Balay Pasilungan” to prevent the recommission of crimes.

3. What effect has the RLA had on your work?

The RLA has inspired the people at FREE LAVA to work hard to assist the disadvantaged and the marginalised sectors in the Philippines. We are more committed to the vision for a just and humane society in which the oppressed and the underprivileged have maximum access to justice and social services in order to invoke their rights and meet their basic needs and attain their own development as human beings ultimately leading towards an improved quality of life for all elements in the community.