Image from: newsflash.org
What is punishment? To me back then, defining such a word gives me a hard time. But if I could muster my thoughts correctly, I would say that punishment is giving unjust men the just treatment. It is a way of removing them from society to first, reduce the damage that they can do, and second to be an opportunity for them to change as a person.
On the last Saturday of June 2016, I woke up early to prepare to a trip to the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa. To me it is not a trip, but rather an immersion. I have been to a few immersions before. To the Muslim community of Kuliat, to the home for the aged and other charity houses and I have even gone as far as live in the urban poor community of Punta, Sta. Ana Manila for a week. Immersions are not new to me, and I thank the formation process of UPSCA (UP Student Catholic Action, my only org), for they taught me how to make a social analysis. This social analysis is founded on many Catholic principles, but in a nutshell, it teaches us to be humble, for we are mere mortal creations of God. In that humility springs forth our desire to know about the pain and suffering of our fellow men. And the belief in an almighty God teaches us to treat every creation as equals. Equals because we know that something is bigger than us, someone is mightier than us. I look at prostitutes no differently as my sister. I look at criminals no differently as my brother. The method of social analysis taught in UPSCA also goes more than that. We have this see-judge-act principle, where in after every immersion must come forth an action based on the insights you have learned. After seeing the problem, one must thoroughly process these issues and make a just action to alleviate their suffering or solve the problem.
What comes to your mind when you hear “Maximum Security Prison”? Usually stigmatized in society, it is a place where the drug lords, killers, and rapists are kept as a form of their punishment. A picture of men crammed in cells, where prison guards electrocute the fences among other sadistic acts. Diseases are rampant; death and decay cover the whole compound. You can see in the face of men in orange t-shirts the regret of their crime, and you could only do as much as pity them. Every man is to himself and his will to live.
This is not the Maximum Security Prison. All those are products of imagination conceived from what we hear from the media and other print publications. And it is not entirely true.
I was with my class in Sociology 11 with Miss Aireen Grace Andal when we entered the prison compound. After the redundant but ineffective security scanning, we went inside. Men in orange shirts welcomed us and even offered us shade in their umbrellas. While walking to what seems to me like a beach hut, I saw men playing in the basketball court. I also went past a bakery and an eatery, a tiny store, and a sports gear shop.
As our class went upstairs the beach hut. We met sir Dan and sir JV among many other inmates. Most of the gentlemen we met are college educated, which apparently is quite rare inside the prison. These guys were logical and sound, and they also held positions and are quite respected. They explained to us the system inside the prison.
The corrections bureau is quite ineffective in managing the inmates in aspects other than keeping them inside. The inmates have setup groups or pangkats which are like gangs. These groups have their own leaders, they have their own rules, and they function as a government inside their dormitories (cells). Basically, they regulate matters of their own and they initiate income-generating projects as well as projects for community development. The bakery and other business establishments we saw inside the prison is actually owned by one of the groups. Each group is self-officiating, respected by other groups and recognized by the prison authorities. There are thirteen groups or pangkats. Each new inmate is either assigned to a pangkat, or if they refuse to do so, they will be assigned to a cuerna or “faction-less” so to speak. The life of a cuerna is more difficult than those inmates with pangkats, just like in that novel Divergent.
There is a delicate balance between these pangkats and they want to keep the peace. They sometimes punish their own members for misconduct and indecency. Sir Dan said that for petty crimes, they do not want to get the bureau involved anymore, so they enact discipline among their members in ways that could range from a lock down in your prison cell to something grave like paddling. Sir JV added that whenever the bureau wants something, such as counting of the prisoners after curfew or cleaning the yard, the prison authorities would only call on the leaders of the pangkats and could expect it to be done immediately. The system is so efficient that way.
I saw that this prison is not just a prison, but it is also a community where the sense brotherhood is very alive. Each faction strictly shares their resources to create projects for everyone. The basketball court and much of the recreational facilities inside are from the collective effort of the inmates. All these did not come from tax payer’s money, but from the money of the inmates, which also begs the question: Where does the entire budget for the prisoners go?
Corruption. The bilibid is full of it. From the guards beng paid to smuggle in contrabands, to the budget officers not giving enough for food and medicine. I kid you not when they only have fifty pesos per inmate per day, which is reduced to thirty five pesos due to kickbacks by the cooks and other prison officers. Also I found it very repulsive that they only have a budget of two pesos a day for medicine, which is not enough for even the cheapest cheap drug like paracetamol. I asked the inmates on the question of health care. They said that the factions try their best to help their brothers when they are sick. They collect and contribute for medicines and other expenditures which the bureau cannot often provide. They are also reliant on charity institutions and service programs by NGOs on more expensive and complicated diseases like diabetes. They even made a joke that “Bawal magkasakit dito. Makakalaya ka lang dito kung mamatay ka” (You shouldn’t get sick here. You’ll only get out of here when you die.)
The inmates also have questions in the justice system. Laws here in the Philippines are not practiced very well. One of the inmates said that “Justice here is very subjective, not objective.” Also the processing of cases in the country can be very slow. I met someone whose case started in 1994 and is still unresolved to this day.
My reflection is that, in this Maximum Security Prison, I saw what is common among all Filipinos: the sense of community. It is recurring theme that I see to all the immersions I have seen. But the setting being a prison gave me an insight. Here I saw the factions of pangkats being governed by an authority: the bureau. If we made an analogy of the local government unit and the national government, we can see the broader picture. No matter how efficient and collective the factions are, if the Corrections Bureau is inefficient, no real progress can be felt by everyone. Only the people in the big office desks can feel the it. Such is the situation in the country. I have seen local governments being more progressive than the national government. No two local governments are the same. They cater the needs of their people more than the other. The archipelagic nature of our country gives rise to differences in language and culture. It is the concern of the local government to address local concerns. But it is a challenge for the national government to be in harmony with all of the local governments despite their differences.
“Kailangan naming ng leader na minsan na ring nakulong, or kahit man lang yung alam ang pamumuhay sa loob ng preso.” (We need a leader who is an ex-convict, or at least someone who knows the life inside the prison). This highlights a theme in my Urbanwork, where in to truly serve, you must know who you are serving. You must be able to live their lives so that you can understand their pain, and sufferings. How will you know how to help someone if you don’t know them?
I asked the gentlemen how we can help them. They said “telling other people about the life inside is more than enough to me”. But for me, there is a lot more to be done. Health is a primary concern inside the prison. The lack of nourishment, crowded living space, and unsanitary conditions all stack up to put them at high risks should there be a contagion inside. Also, I think the justice system needs to speed up the processing of their cases. Some people there have been waiting for years for the result of their appeals. If only someone could give a letter to the president about convicts who qualify for executive clemency, that would be great. Oy Sir Digong, taga-Dabaw man sad ko. Paminawa para gud akong istorya patungod sa mga preso sa bilibid.
Punishment can be unjust. The poor living conditions inside the prison are, in itself an punishment beyond what is just. Punishment is also sacrifice. You are sacrificing years of being with your family because the society believes that after this, you will become a better person. Finally, punishment is bizarre. One way or another, I believe, it will find a way to serve justice to the guilty, convicted or not.
Photos from Kakusa Partylist