Monthly Archives: February 2012
IWAHIG PENAL COLONY: When I was at the helm
From Davao Penal Colony, I was transferred to Iwahig Penal Colony. That was in 1995. The place was a marvellous enclave of natural resources, its forests were intact, mountains provide a background of its productive flat plains, the ecosystem was preserved and its presence mitigate any danger for environmental and even natural degradation for the entire province of Palawan. It has an aggregate size of 29,000 hectares, a land-lock area where it is impossible to escape even if attempts to evade the harsh environment were commonplace. It is not an island but a large vast of land south of Puerto Princesa City. (It is land-lock and ideal to pursue an open institution since escape is difficult to pursue. On the north side of the penal colony is the city proper—a strip of an avenue where the airstrip occupies the end and a few kilometres after, the pier can be found, human and commercial activity are concentrated on this narrow corridor. A prisoner can easily be spotted. On the western side of the colony is the South China Sea (recently renamed West Philippine Sea); a vast mass of water where some of the most exotic sea life and marine monsters reside. Escaping through this route is impractical and dangerous. On the eastern side is a mountain range where one can find the most treacherous tropical rain forest in Asia, the only remaining undisturbed jungle in the country. Escaping through this path requires athleticism of the highest order and of course a full inoculation of anti malaria and anti rabies vaccine. At the back door, so to speak, on the southern side of the colony is a vast flat of arable land where bounty hunters are residing. These hardy folks could have tilled the rich soil and could have transformed it into a productive agricultural farm. But they would rather run after escapees so that instantly, they could exchange them to the prison officers for a sack of rice, no sweat.)
It has been said that the dialect of the province (of Palawan) changes constantly depending on the large of mass of prisoners transferred to the penal colony. There was a time when a big contingent of Tagalog speaking prisoners (mainly from Luzon) was transferred to the penal colony. The island which for a time was peopled by a minority called Cuyunin and speaks the dialect of Cuyunin, it mimics the sound of bird, has adopted Tagalog as its dialect. Succeeding years witnessed the transfer of predominantly Visayan inmates. A month later, the island was speaking the Visayan dialect already. For a short while, there was a period when the island speaks the Ilokano dialect! Even the exotic and almost to extinct bird called Mynah, an endemic fowl in Palawan, has the same intelligent instinct that could mimic exactly any sound it gains familiarity, even the English language!
The Iwahig penal colony has a rich history and heritage to speak of. It was, once upon a time, the center of civilization in the island. Iwahig has a recreation hall where all denizens of then sleepy municipality of Puerto Princesa would flock for a rare occasion of social life, as in listening to music, courtesy of an all-inmate musical band and some cosmopolitan dancing. The penal colony has almost everything to share to the native Palawenos. It has fresh water pool directly flowing from the mountains, a hot spring resort and a beach front. The forest yields bountiful resources which could rival the best and fully endowed five star hotel in terms of fruits and meat supply. Personnel from the colony need not yank out anything from their pay envelop to buy the necessary food requirements; a couple of inmates in their charge could make the necessary harvest for them already.
That was the situation when I assumed command over the facility. There was even an impression and which I experienced, that anyone who takes charge of the penal facility is almost a god in the province. Under the old Prison Law, the Superintendent of Iwahig Penal Colony had the same judicial power corresponding that of a Justice of the Peace, or what we refer today as Justice of the Regional Trial Court. I was contemplating on the thought when I received information that the Governor of the Province would come by for a courtesy call! Right after that, it was followed by the courtesy call of the Mayor of Puerto Princesa. As if I was still rigging from inconvenience and culture shock, the most famous son of Palawan, Atty. Ramon Mitra, a future speaker and would-be President, would come over for a courtesy call during my birthday, which was just an ordinary day in the prison community. My first few weeks in Iwahig were enough to fill a thick book on celebrity callers, the movers and shakers of the province. The agency heads of government offices, the former political leaders of different of the town, prominent businessmen, professionals, even media practitioners would regularly pay me a visit. I was beginning to understand the significant role of Iwahig to the entire province of Palawan. I was even under the impression that Iwahig was literally on top of the provincial politico-commercial ecosystem.
I was a picture of satisfaction for a career which has been torn with intrigue. In this side of the planet, I was having fun and exuding with celebrity status. I was the toast of the town and in return, I would oblige the entire prison administration of Iwahig to return the favour. In two months, Iwahig was the most beautifully landscaped facility in Puerto Princesa, rivalling even its gem, the Underground River. During my time, travellers and tourists would rather proceed directly to Iwahig before spending a day in the city proper in preparation for their departure. There was no day in Iwahig when no foreigner and local visitors would be seen. Travel agencies would revise their respective brochures featuring Iwahig as the premier destination.
There were of course difficulties bordering on controversies as I would feel its tense expression. As I was providing the city of Puerto Princesa its featured haven through Iwahig, I did not realize that I was already at the cross hair of political envy. One day, I would be in receipt of a move by the city government pursuing a claim and occupancy of one of Iwahig’s best sub-colony, the Sta. Lucia sub colony, where the best ever naturally designed cove in the country can be found. I did not allow politicians to ruin the area and to prove my point; I drove away the enterprising civilians trying to occupy the area. That drew first blood. The political group of the city would draft and almost pass a resolution declaring me a persona non grata to the city. I worked through my friends in media for a dialogue with the politicians until I was able to smooth their feathers. They however relented the peace since I did not give up my defence on the matter of chipping away a part of Iwahig land.
A group of businessmen from Davao, they whom I have befriended in Davao Penal Colony, prior to my transfer to Iwahig, came for a reunion and possible exploration of a joint venture. They proposed to develop an agricultural farm, to be planted with sugar cane, to an estimated 10 thousand hectares of Iwahig flat base. As it were, only 50 hectares were traditionally tilled as rice land and when I came in, I tried to expand it to 250 hectares and after a few months to 500 hectares. I estimated that after a year, Iwahig would be self sufficient in rice supply and the succeeding year, it could even supply the rest of all the penal colonies in the whole archipelago. I would not last a year though. This group of businessmen, headed by a friend Quitoy Lorenzo, from the prominent Lorenzo clan, owner of Pepsi Cola franchise and the La Panday group of companies, wanted to maintain their sugar supply (for their softdrink business) instead of importing it from China. If they could maintain a 10 thousand hectare of sugar cane plantation in Palawan, that would be the biggest sugar cane plantation in the whole of Asia, bigger than the Luisita of Tarlac and those at Bacolod. I was excited about the project since having the farm would mean a zero unemployment rate for the entire province of Palawan. And since it is a farm, there is no controversy to be generated since the environment would not be compromised. Iwahig personnel would have an increase in their take home pay also since they will also be conscripted in security supervision. Inmates will gain additional assistance in the same approach as those practised in Davao penal colony in the joint venture with Tagum Agricultural Development Corp. (Tadeco). Furthermore, the Bureau of Corrections will have revenue to support its fledging fund for the rehabilitation of all prisoners. And what would make it a very inspiring project is the fact, civilian workers to be recruited from Pueto Princesa city will contribute to the revenue of city government through their taxes and in a spending spree, they would be able to trigger an economic miracle. Commerce and business establishments would perk up the entire life blood of the province.
That will never happen because of political intervention. Some leaders do not want their subjects to be economically independent. They would rather have a sleepy town than an active and progressive constituency. And why not? The rich and established professionals do not want competition. Dependency of people on leaders assures the latter of exploited labor and more often, of slave labor. The entry of the Lorenzos in a proposed joint venture with Iwahig would surely disturb the sleepy atmosphere of the town; a bane and nightmare for some well entrenched personalities in the field of politics and commerce. There were signs of harassment already during the initial talks but the Lorenzos never gave in. They have me as their main negotiating partner and with me around, they can fulfil a good business partnership with government.
That idea would not last long. Politicians through their patrons in the higher echelon of government worked to throw me out of Palawan. Their suspicion on my presence long before had not yet been forgotten. Since I have a record of disallowing their mission to take over a piece of Iwahig, which I think would compromise the rain forest of the area, and with the farm, it could effectively provide good economic and education future for their constituency and sooner, some would compete even succeed in replacing their leadership, that intrinsically was something to address. They lost no time in lobbying for my transfer. For them, without me, the Lorenzos would be left alone and would eventually fold up. True enough, after a couple of months in the negotiation and preparation table, I was transferred to Zamboanga. The Lorenzos likewise dropped the project and out goes the future prospect for a prosperous Palawan too.
I was thinking that finally I found a niche in Palawan as one of its foremost pioneer in developing a sleepy town to a flourishing settlement, where poverty and destitution would be history. As it were, Palawan is still a fledging rural area, half an inch higher than their counterparts in the stone age era.
On the whole, I still maintain that Iwahig still holds the key for the development of the entire province of Palawan.
ON OVERSEEING THE NATIONAL PENITENTIARY
I had the rare opportunity to administer the national penitentiary, the New Bilibid Prison, a premier penal facility situated in Muntinlupa City, four times on interval basis. The first was short lived. There was no way for me to have a continuous term because of certain conflicts I had with the prison leadership, the Director of Corrections. Once, I moved to abolish all gangs. The Director was not pleased. Abolishing gangs may entail violence and trouble; something which may trigger a security nightmare, a matter unwanted by the prison director. It was delicate operation and administration never wanted to rock the boat, so to speak. I was relieved instead.
In another occasion when I was again ordered to take command of the penitentiary, another incident would spark a disagreement. I was designated as penitentiary superintendent but was never allowed to take charge. I would just follow the succeeding Director and if at all something unfortunate will happen, I presumed that I would just be made as scapegoat. I resented the arrangement. Either I run the facility or stay outside the loop of the organization. I was again relieved for not being a stereotype follower. Initiative in government was always viewed with suspicion and on the whole, seen as a crime. So out goes my planned program as a prospective initiative and it goes without saying that I must look for a corner, something inconsequential to spend my time on floating status.
My third term was the shortest at six months. Barely I could flex institutional muscle when I would again be relieved for performing the role as prison superintendent. Doing so means that the Director of Corrections would not have any function at all. Directors are political appointees and as such would presume that they are all in charge of the New Bilibid Prison, not knowing that NBP is just one of the seven prison and penal farms in the country. What makes NBP different is not the population alone (it houses almost 55% of 30,000 prisoners in the whole agency), but the fact that the office of the Director of Corrections lay mainly within the administration building of NBP. All Directors for that matter must exercise hands-on and whoever was chosen Superintendent of NBP must be contented as cheer leader. Worst, if there should be a blunder in the course of administration, the NBP Superintendent carries the burden of misadministration. I was again sent to the freezer. There was no room for anything impressive. Silence was the name of the game.
My fourth term was literally insignificant. I have been subdued by years of pressures and pursuing my earlier moves might instigate misunderstanding. I merely played according to what was intended by the prison leadership. No more initiative, no more stellar performance, just coasting along. Until I grew tired and requested to be replaced. I would rather stay at the background writing books instead. Going into lectureship was more rewarding since I was given stipend several times higher than my take home pay. Less work, more rewards. Less pressure, more leisure. Scholarship was to be preferred than to be at logger heads with my superior. I would rather commit on paper what an ideal prison facility is than pursuing it and threatened in the process.
Whenever my peers would tease me on terms at NBP which was never completed, my expression would always be the same. “Sa NBP, walang ibang sumisikat kung hindi ang araw lang!” (In the penitentiary, no one is allowed to shine except for the sun!) An ordinary day at the helm of NBP was always a toss between excitement and dreariness. And who would not be excited to govern 20 thousand prisoners compressed in a few hectarage of confinement facilities. And to think that this is the most dangerous sector of our society. I would even indulge a researcher when I was asked how it felt to manage the prison community with the following challenge. I would express: “As soon as you wake up in the morning, you count 20,000 and before retiring at night another count of 20,000. Try it just for one week without let up.” That to me in simple term is one way of describing the responsibility of handling and maintaining the prison community. And I would interject another mathematical proposition with the following statement: “In the maximum security wing, there are 12, 000 prisoners guarded on three shifts by an average number of 50 prison officers. Allow the 20,000 prisoners not to commit violence but merely to sit on the 50 guards, and I will tell you that one or more of the guards sat upon may die of asphyxiation. “
At NBP, like in any penal facility in the countryside, work is a form of sacrifice. One must forego intimacy with his family and even to the large extent, must be ready to give up his values and sanity. The prison community is a marginal environment which is the opposite of the free community. One must have the patience of a philosopher, the fortitude of a warrior, the serenity of a sage, the endurance of an Olympian and the vigilance of a dreamer. One does not succeed in this kind of environment. There is only one grand effect of coming through and that is merely to survive after a day’s immersion.
Prison service, for all there is to it, is a test for survivors, nothing more.
REMINISCING A FRIEND
Romy Chavez is not a name one can associate with familiarity or anything that has to do with heroism. He is a nondescript. One who can be passed on and ignored even. He never had a record shattering moment neither he exhibited anything extraordinary. He played on the safe side with no, if at all, minimal risk to encounter. There were times when I would goad him, that is, expose him to danger, something that could pronounce glory for him in the final count. No way. He would rather recoil and stay back. It was never his cup of tea. He would rather run away with a penny than drag a duffle bag full of dough. He would rather see an action flick than go through the motion.
Yet Romy joined me for action. He knew that I am into dangerous liaison. He knew that I court danger, not once in a while, but very often. Yet he enjoyed the “fun run.” He would rather witness mayhem like in his job as prison guard. While in the prison service, he would watch at close range how prisoners hack each other to death. He would come in as soon as the horror is through.
No, he will never find any occasion during turbulent years in prison as an opportunity to shine. He would rather be around those who make things happen. It is in playing as witness that he rejoiced. It is in his character as viewer that he finds his comfort zone. He would rather be an onlooker, a historian so to speak, than be someone shaping an event. If an event has changed and he happens to be within the scene, lucky for him. If not, it is also fine luck. His being a survivor means staying away from the fray. After all, story tellers are the toast of the town while the hero recuperates from his wounds. He would rather maintain a pantheon, small as it was, than a monument.
As Romy gets the amusing part of valor, he would exercise his mental mode for analysis. It is not after all fatal to challenge the gods like how I would do it. For him, imitating me is already half being an action star, if not a star in his mind. He lived as a shadowy figure behind me for 17 years. From the time he reported for duty to me in 1995 and as soon as he filed his retirement in 2002, he never faltered in reporting to me ever since. He wanted to see me play with threats and perilous situations. Once in a while, he would dabble with menacing conditions but this he merely wanted to have a hand if only to gain a specific part in the over-all picture of risk and hazard. After each intimidating mission, we would find each other relishing each scene and laughing at those incongruities we have committed.
Romy succeeded in replicating even my mannerisms. Discussing with him is like myself looking and talking at the mirror. My voice, my usual smoker’s cough, my giggle and even my punch lines were literally lifted. He was really a character. Someone hard to dismiss. Somebody one cannot just drop in a corner. Everyday, he would be up and about and already beside me. I have to read a lot of books so that I could share something new to him. He was like a cotton, very absorbent and always had a fresh outlook in learning. He would even accompany me and try to learn as many principles even if it means that he stays overnight. He wanted to feel how it was to be knowledgeable. Outside of my sphere, bearing some few insights he took note from our conversation, he would exude superiority among a few of his friends, impose whatever he had learned, even if it irked those around him. There were those that would respect him for his wits, others would be turned off for being such a snobbish.
Early in his career in prison, a few years before he would join my team, he was an indulgent worker and audacious entrepreneur to gain something for his growing family. Until one day, he was diagnosed as suffering from diabetes. His weight and body mass were reduced and he became withdrawn and indifferent. That would also be a time when his peers would suspect him as a whistleblower and a spy. Worst, his diabetic weight loss was even viewed as a result of drug abuse. As a consequence, he was listed among those confirmed scallywags in the organization. That was the time when he would approach me to be assisted. I was sent to a remote prison in Palawan and it was there that he was to be banished along with several notorious prison personnel. Since he was indorsed by a friend, at that time, he was a non-entity to me yet; I adopted him as one of my assistants. From that time on, he would never leave my trail. He would plead to be a part of my retinue. He would volunteer to be my gofer, even if at times, I never had any inclination of having anyone around me. I worked alone and I was effective that way. I never tried to get anyone involved in any of my silent drills. During day time I am an assiduous prison officer, in the afternoon a quintessential scholar and at night, a stalker for justice. He would only see two thirds of my personality and he was already drawn to my itinerary. But he had some suspicions. Yet he never dared to probe deeper knowing that danger lurked at those dark moments.
He could not fathom my principles. He knew that in handling prison, I had great moments to earn and save. He knew that my power was enough to accumulate material benefits. Yet staying close to me was a period of struggle. He thought that there were people who were only trying to fool me. That I was always at the short end of every transaction. He volunteered that if one day I would be given a command assignment, at that time I was always in the freezer for distancing from administrators who are corrupt, he would personally run the business for me and save so much. He intends to budget anything saved so that when the time comes for another bout of being floated, we would have the funds to live by.
That day would come. And more. I was again conscripted to trouble shoot a prison facility. He knew that the opportunity has arrived. He pleaded to join me in the mission. I consented. Thereupon, on his insistence, I would allow him to take a glimpse of my entire life as administrator, scholar and equalizer. For him it was an enjoyable trip. It was an adventure of a lifetime. Finally, he would be able to see up close how I manage my time, how I deal and negotiate, how I think and solve problems. For him it was having a total education. But he was nonetheless holding much caution at a time when I have thrown all caution to the wind. He would still reserve the same outlook of staying at the sidelines, sitting on the fence rather than participating actively in the fray. While he was learning something for application, he would rather not stretch his luck and would rather perform as cheer leader. He would be contented with morsels than having a chunk. He would be relishing moments thought of as stories rather live at the fulcrum of real and live action. He was like riding on a plane where half of his body is dangling outside. The plane may crash and he had the chance to jump out if that happens. He never wanted to place all his eggs in one basket. He was that ever careful with himself, even to the point of being careless in the process.
He stayed beside me for 17 years, more than my loved ones in a career that requires me to move from one station to another. I would leave my family and proceed to where I was assigned to fulfil an organizational responsibility. I could only hear my family through telephone and luckily at this time, through the medium of texting and skyping. Not for Romy. He was there wherever I am. Romy knew that he can do everything he wants including the commission of boo-boos since I am ultra patient even when it comes to error. I never raised my voice nor scolded anyone. Invectives are only heard during an orgy of laughter. He would rather spend his time around my sphere, work and earn on the side beside according to him, pick up some thoughts and contribute to his wits.
All through out, he was therefore a constant buddy. In a span for almost two decades where I saw my career at times on a high point but usually bordering on the low point, he would be there. Not necessarily to render succour but most especially to spend time in a grand manner. Grand in the sense that he was learning a lot of principles derive from a crisis. And most of the time, I was always on that state. He probably, and this he would always admit, would be given a share because whenever there is difficulty, I found myself earning something.
Where I was down, he was there. Not to lift me up but to witness how I try to rebound. And rebound I always do in an amusing manner. Amusing from my standpoint. Generating laughter from the antics of those who failed to pin me down. He would share the same feeling of confidence and would even internalize it as if he underwent the same process. Back in his place, in the comfort of his family, he would regale of tales on how we defeated the dragon, so to speak. He would act victoriously as if he was the one who slew a monster. After a few hours, he would be back where I am. For him, to join me was doing his family a great favour. He would not be a party to deduct food from the table since he was always out with me.
But the years are claiming his strength. He was already 68 years old. Anyone at that age should never even challenge the gods of luck. He was on borrowed time already. Those on the active side have a lifespan of 65 and here he was pushing the limits of his luck. He never tone down his activities which were mostly very physical. I even would require him extra duties that would push further his strength and strong he really was. I could not even cope on the way he spends the day, the fact that I am a decade younger and stronger than him.
He would commit himself with more concerns, more responsibilities. Greater tasks than he had before. He knew that there was only a few years which he could spend an active lifestyle, he would rather compress everything at the moment. He regretted those moments when he left my camp because of homesickness. That time I recalled him, he would never falter, he would never go back unless he is full, unless he has succeeded on what he intends to accumulate.
That day would never come. He was a soldier who never retreated from the battlefield notwithstanding the odds, notwithstanding the fact that his strength is fading due to age. And true enough, like a soldier, he died with his boots on. He may have died a broken man. He may have died of ailments, which he would complain as he was already experiencing once in a while. He may have died of depression. He may have died a lonely man. But no. He was up and about, competing and geared towards defeating failure. He was there within my sphere but he made some improvements. He wanted to short cut a process. In so doing, in cutting corners to win his war, he was mortally wounded in an accident. He never recovered but in his mind, he was winning.
At his death bed, I ignored the figure of the man I called my closest friend. I do not want to see the body of a slain soldier, my soldier. I want to preserve in my mind the living friend that he truly is. I never attended his wake nor witnessed his burial. For me, he is still alive.