Monthly Archives: March 2012
MSGR. ERNESTO A. ESPERIDION: A LAUGHING SAINT
I have yet to see a statuette of a Saint posed in his full divinity clutching his tummy and bursting with laughter. Well, except for Buddha with toddlers cramped on his belly and torso, nothing would come close. Besides, Buddha is never a saint at all but a philosopher, a sacred one though. In the list, a long list actually, where Christian religious icons would predominate church altars, Saints were either martyrs, prophets, blessed leaders, divine persons and those during their ministries would indulge in mystery. They were incorruptible, approximating a sanctified life. Saints were the ideal representation of faith and the true picture of belief. Their seriousness to the cause of faith is without blemish. They are the epitome of devotion and commitment. It is not therefore commonplace to picture a Saint in all his or her solemn and staid appearance. The Saint depicts the somber and vital thread of salvific resolution.
And where will Msgr. Ernesto Espiridion come in if in the final analysis he would later be canonized and would become a Saint? He was an electronic engineer who later would embrace the celibate life of priesthood. But that is too shallow a consideration. During his youth, no one can defeat him in the game of chess, but that does not make him blessed more than Kasparov. There must be something more than meets the eye. Saints must be solemn in their postulant ways. Both Blessed Lorenzo Ruiz and Calungsod, to include Mother Ignacia of RVM congregation, suffered and die clutching their belief in the Lord and willing to die, never renouncing their faith. Saint Francis discarded wealth and embraced poverty, Saint Paul left soldiering and founded Christianity. The Apostles, all of them, lived and died under the spell of love and forgiveness. But what about Msgr. Espiridion? What made him a saintly material? He is still alive and poking fun with his present illness, convincing his friends to bring their problems through lighter moments. While he found the religious ministry too serious for a radiant world view, he would rather look at the incongruities of reality rather than the stern representation of life. He would rather laugh than cry; guffaw and chuckle than whimper and weep. His sermons were never an episode devoted to shedding tears and sobbing; it is always an occasion for amusement and hilarity.
After the celebration of the Mass, people are relieved of the tension of struggle. Their collective laughter would punctuate the completion of the day. It may for a while promote a respite from a troubled life, a break in a competitive world, but for every laughter, there is liberation of spirit. And it for this reason that Msgr. Espiridion, all by himself, with faith in man’s capacity to defeat the evil of the world need not disturb the heaven for indulgence but would rather tap humanity’s vast reserve of strength to deal with moral challenges. He uses laughter as a prayerful gesture. For him, laughter is not only the best medicine, it is also a tool in defeating wickedness in this world.
Msgr. Espiridion spent the best years of his religious ministry attending to the needs of the prisoners, they who were considered the most dangerous sector of society, those convicted and condemned in the bar of justice. He was in the midst of that community conjoined with hopelessness and desperation. He would find himself while accosting the inmates exposed in extreme anxiety and fear. Prison after all is a community inured in despair and despondency. Here, misery is commonplace, anguish a part of every expression. His presence and this is where his attendance becomes a significant occasion, would redefine and alter the environment. There would be laughter and mirth, there is delight and recreation. Suddenly life pulsates. Cheerfulness replaced the grim exterior of a prisoner. Suddenly, the prisoner becomes man again, becomes a member of humanity, becomes conscious of his self, becomes humane and reasonable, qualities that defies and defeats criminal proclivity.
The prison community was an entity that never merited any significance except when occasional riots occur. It was during this period that Msgr. Espiridion proclaimed that society must have role in improving the lot of the incarcerated community. “Prison is People” said Msgr Espiridion and it became the phrase that would reformulate the importance of prison in the context of building Christian communities. No sooner than the Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) organized the Episcopal Commission on Prisoners Welfare (ECOPRiW).
The struggle for recognition would not stop with the establishment of ECoPriW, it would even signal Msgr. Espiridion’s crusade to save prisoners from death penalty. Several condemned men were line up one after another for electrocution and for each occasion, Msgr. Espiridion would painstakingly lobby for a stay of execution until finally, death penalty was technically abolished. Throughout his stint in the prison service, the Chaplain’s quarters, where Msgr. Espiridion has chosen to encamp even after his retirement, were virtually transformed into a half house for released prisoners. It would not take long for this arrangement when a prison director would recall the quarters privilege from the crusading priest in favor his enterprising personal driver.
On the whole, Msgr. Esperidion, in his more than three decades of religious ministry in prison has literally changed the outlook of the prison community. He brought humanity back in the heart of thousands of prisoners. He successfully converted them back to their faith not only in Man but also to his Creator. And he would always do it in a zanier way. He transformed faith into something a prisoner could hold on, to sustain his sanity, strengthening his bearing and leading a life away from moral decay. Those who were released found new life. Those left behind are continuing what Msgr Espiridion has for years introduced to the prison community.
And where is this saintly religious man now? He has retired from the prison service where the prison community badly needs him. Laughter for a while departed as soon as he left. He would however show up once in a while to remind his constituency of a funny incident but his health is already deteriorating. His sense of hearing became a problem but for him it is a blessing since he would be able to ignore the noise of depravity and decadence. As soon as medical intervention restored his hearing, he pledged to listen only to jokes and amusing tales.
Msgr. Esperidion is already in his twilight years, twitching, ailing and weak. The prospects of regaining health are slowly dimming. He never had anything by way of luxury to maintain his health. He would rather seek his strength in his faith and prayer. He has done after all a monumental task of transforming a sector, a dangerous sector, back to the fold of humanity. The thief beside the Lord upon assuming faith was accompanied to heaven. In the case of Msgr Espiridion, the thieves and murderers and a host of other characters with villainous background, were cajoled to despise their past and accosted, laughingly, back to their senses, back to their community of orientation with faith in their heart. Truly, a remarkable way of projecting what Christian love is all about. Msgr. Ernesto Esperidion, a true follower of the Lord, a Saint in waiting.
(UPDATE: Msgr. EA Espiridion has chosen a hermetic life outside the confines of his exclusive Church hospice. He would rather brave the world and challenge the elements. He thinks he is winning but in my estimation he is about to lose. His eye sight is defective, and his hearing has failed already. His health has badly deteriorated and his finances terribly ruined by his medication and regular hospital confinement. He barely could walk, barely could find balance. Yet despite his condition, he dared seek no succor from friends but seeks comforts through prayer. He is a shadow of his former self, a shell almost, but he still clings to his faith and for this he believes that life and happiness still reside in him. To date, he is still in his safe house at Sto. Nino, Muntinlupa City, Metro Manila and constantly is praying for all his friends. Wish him well through his cellphone number 0928 2537519.)
A MEASURE OF CONTEMPLATION
There are times when truth stares in the eye. Reality is honest, straight and frank. It is accurate and faithful. It is therefore worth being candid and straightforward. This is about a precipitous trek towards the path of passing through his prime. And this is what I wish to share on a personal note. I am growing old, like everyone and I could feel it slowly creeping into my system. (Actually, upon reaching the age of 55—and this was three years ago, I had this eerie feeling already but I would easily overcome it by seeing places, that is by travelling, constant movement from one place to another, as in wandering.) Nonetheless, I must confess that all alone by myself, I am getting a bit sensitive almost about everything. While I could not care less what was happening before, now I could feel a pinch already. That is indeed a sign of growing old, not necessarily about maturity, but more about the feeling of despair and well, of getting little attention also. Whenever something happens around me, I could immediately grasp it and would instantly relate it to myself. There seem to be a reduction of boldness. I know that it should not be what it should be but my chemistry begins to freeze over—or boil, whenever an incident takes place. It could be a small tap, a big tap, an innocent expression, or a hideous suspicion, whatever it is, I could sense and feel it. And the feeling is not in any manner threatening but it gets into my skin. My heart palpitates for actually no reason at all. How I wish I could remember and watch my poise, my statements and my actions. It could have been brought out as a consequence of my demeanor. No matter how innocent I would pledge but since I could not guard every second of my actions, I am vulnerable for misunderstanding. And when it does happen, it is I that suffers in the process.
It is no wonder why people my age would rather retreat to the mountains, into some unknown caves if only to protect one’s health, mental health. There were sages before me who chose a life of a hermit and they liked it so much to the point of even formulating a philosophy out of the exercise. The one who wrote the biblical passage on Revelation wrote his intellectual formulation in one ancient cave and his writings were oftentimes quoted. It is also used as reference to chill the wayward world out of apathy.
Domestic life is full of strife if ages separate the residents. A generation gap it is. Hence the youth battles with elders and gender likewise plays a major role. There is no blending and if at all, there is surrender somewhere between the lines. Surrendering at times requires bravura and it is sometimes one element which is never an automatic component of one’s integrity. But it is in surrendering that makes the world go round. There is no compromise in retreat, no negotiation, just plain surrender. It is also one of the most if not highly accepted mode of acceptance as in having faith.
I have been through a lot of challenges in the past. And these are no popcorn. It is not only career threatening but life intimidating as well. I never would bog down. As a matter of fact I would even relish it. But times have changed. Even the roughest athlete should have a time to lay low and be reticent later. Gone were those days when challenges are accepted, contests are entered into, competition is sky high. Let the younger ones prevail and let them check the records of people, old people, as they simply belong to history already. One may have the gumption to shoot but the wrists are no longer there, the sights are nowhere and even the enthusiasm has waned.
There were lots of senior moments to get the adrenaline going. There is the retro music to lullaby one’s time. There are the mementoes of the past, the pictures, the books, the jewelries and some gadgets long declared as vintage. Of course, if one is lucky enough, one gets a sudden greeting from a long lost friend. There is of course the weather, the roads and byways, the buildings, some places. They have never changed radically. Well except for the electronic gadgets which change every few months, life has never been dramatically altered. There were lots of memories to go by. The things which were there before, years and years before, are still obtaining and still could be seen and experienced. It is there to accompany the conservative as well as the liberal.
Once upon a time, the elderly today were the firebrands, the purveyors of change before. The conservatives today were once the outright liberals of years gone by. However, time has swallowed the strength, the vitality of one’s body and the mind follows where his physicality would bring it. There is not enough potency to overcome emotions. While one may still retain fearlessness it is not enough to overhaul heartaches and sorrows. The remaining period for those who have successfully transcended additional time could have been by design devoted to despondency and distress. This is one situation where solitary life is most welcome.
Meanwhile, the elderly must find a way, the means actually, to stay out, to be alone, to be with the gods all by himself. There is peace in the process. There is communion with nature. There is order in his private surroundings. There is only him and the sky above. There is only one life, his own to take good care of.
For a prison officer, youthful when he came in and about to turn senile years later when he is about to fold up, becomes acquainted with the sensitivity of prisoners. He has become a prisoner himself, a prisoner of time, a prisoner o f waning vigor, a prisoner of emotionalism. He has to surmount a period requiring conscience, a period requiring a passion for life—this at a time when only a few summers is left. He knew that every move is limited. He would in effect realize that he must have to confront the inevitable force of nature. He must bow before it and he must reckon his weakness.
Age is a factor in the prison service. But in the prison community age is nowhere. Time, like freedom, has left those inside. While the prison officer worries about time, in prison it is virtually wasted. The prison officer bids time, the prisoner must have to squander it. The prison officer grows old, the prisoner remains the same. The prison officer eventually retires, the prisoner subsequently gets tired. Both needed a chance to stay on the periphery of time. Both must endure each other and the marginal community where they are situated. Both grow old no matter how they perceive their condition. The Prison officer bows out, the prisoner bows down. As the saying goes, time waits for no one. For the prison officer, its time out. For the prisoner, its time in.
Growing old does not mean dying; much more so, it does not imply an end but a dispute to win over. It is something to overcome; it is also something to live by. It is one ailment which man must understand how to cure. To be sure, not getting any younger means to emerge in time.
THE INFAMOUS DAPECOL ARMORY RAID in ’07: Lenten Thoughts
It was an Easter Sunday, April 7, 2007, a few minutes after midnight. The euphoria of Black Saturday has not faded yet. Dapecol denizens were almost exhausted with a series of religious programs all aimed in the prison camp where some prisoners would impersonate religious icons in the course of observing the daily struggle of the Lord Christ during His Calvary. It was the culmination of a weeklong Lenten season, a celebration, a day of feast equivalent to Christmas, akin almost, that is why the Sunday is also referred to as “Pasko ng Pagkabuhay.”
The religious among the prison personnel requested the prison leadership at that time to be assisted for the construction of a craggy contraption to be used in the traditional “salubungan” where Christian folks would re-enact the appearance of the resurrected Christ with his disciple, especially Mary Magdalene. It was denied. And so, the religious group went through the process of tapping personal resources instead just so their spiritual pledge would be complied with. All were geared and almost prepared for the feast day. Everyone, prison officer, his family and prisoners were all tired but has retained their last ounce of courage, so to speak, on the highlighted day of the season—Easter. But the folks at Dapecol, already informed earlier by the police and military to be on guard, would rather be complacent. If the top guy do not subscribe to such information, then it is merely an innuendo. (The Superintendent at that time even scolded his gate officer, throwing a tantrum even, while being briefed on security concerns, that there is no cause for alarm, and that any restriction could mean trying to disturb the celebratory occasion. The Superintendent at that time had several visitors and assembling the security could rock the air of the holiday.)
At about 1:30 AM, early morning of Easter Sunday, three rented vans parked in front of the main checkpoint gate of Davao Penal Colony and four of its several occupants got off, all of them wearing the prescribed military fatigue uniform, complete with arm bands of Task Force Davao (a special operation group identified with peace keeping in the city of Davao) drawing their long firearms as its barrel trained at the prison guards manning the entryway. Surprised at the sudden appearance of armed men, the duty personnel were dumbfounded. The man inside the first van shouted for the guards to open the gates and access was given. Two of the prison guards were collared and forced to board the second van.
A convoy was held and after a short distance of a kilometre from the gate, the armed group stopped at the prison armory. One of captive guards was brought out to signal his fellow officer in charge of the armory to open the depot. And as soon as the stockroom officer appeared, several hooded persons alighted swiftly from the van and began to break into the arsenal. A couple of quick intervals by the robbers, the entire armoury were literally emptied. Dapecol lost 112 firearms and 1,000 units of M-16 ordnance. Worst, the raiders had with them three custodial personnel as human shield in case there would be resistance.
The Dapecol community was in deep slumber. There were no tell-tale signs of danger although there were badgering instructions for the dapecol leadership to increase their alert status coming from central office headquarters. It was ignored as false alarm. There was no effort for verification and the institutional strength was never calibrated. It was a holiday, a day of festivity although it should be a matter of concern because every holiday is always a declaration of red alert consideration, over in this part of the correctional system, everyone was clueless.
A single shot addressed in the air could have awakened the entire Dapecol from stupor. But there was no firearm available. There was however one personnel who was able to elude the raiders and through his report, Dapecol was jolted to a position of alertness and a report was immediately relayed almost simultaneously to central office and to Dapecol leadership. A good two hours had passed already and the rebels at that time, the daring raiders, were already having their morning coffee and some celebrations. They had anticipated some fireworks in the process, a sort of “salubungan” of forces but none of it materialized. The religious among the prison personnel even made an allusion to the failure of dapecol leadership to support their spiritual salubungan tradition as a curse that triggered the raid.
As it were, after a few surgical minutes, the rebel mission was completed. At exactly five minutes, the convoy would leave the main prison camp, through the vast banana plantation which is within the prison reservation and off to a designated area, in a nearby town where the raiders chose to stop by. They knew that authorities would have been informed already, an officer or a team may have been dispatched for the counter offensive and that there was no more reason to hold on their shields, and so, the prison personnel, the three of them, were left along the hi-way.
In central office Muntinlupa, Metro Manila meanwhile, three hours later, around 3:00 AM, the news would broke out sending a prison leadership scampering for an instant security conference. Central office hated that instance when it would land on front page or even on headlines that the insurgents succeeded in overpowering a national government facility. The trouble should be addressed instantly and save face. But the prison leadership could not imagine anyone, much more so, for the prison leadership to confront personally the issue head on. It was feared that media would be all over the place, down south in Mindanao and like a nightmare, at the doorstep of Muntinlupa. There was one person who can manage the crisis—Supt. Ven Jo Tesoro—but he was placed on the freezer, presumed a non-team player and always subject of anonymous complaints. The prison leadership had no option however and survival dictates to take any medicine, bitter as it was. Tesoro should be dispatched to trouble shoot the incident, deal with the rebels, explain to media the Dapecol predicament, and provide the mattress on which the system should fall.
And the rest is history.
The Bureau of Corrections was never headlined.
The rebels were bombarded out of their comfort zones.
Dapecol’s prestige was restored.
PRISON GUARD ROMEO HERRERA, Ret.
If there is anything worth celebrating in the correctional setting, it is about the release of a prisoner or literally, on the other side of the fence, the retirement of a prison officer. Both events are referred to as “laya” (or, freedom). For the prisoner, it is worked for or for those, and I mean the majority, who merely coasted along, it’s pure luck. For the prison officer however, it is the completion of a daunting challenge. Both struggled to attain the end but for the officer, it is more of a significant accomplishment, a formidable feat, a victorious end to cap one’s career. For the prison system, the numerical strength of the prison population may have been reduced but it is still superior compared to the fledging proportion the institutional situation could offer. Retiring from the prison service without the usual glitch of complaint attached to one’s name or graduating without any scar from the virulent upheaval of the prison community, calls for some kind of festivity for his family.
Here is a typical officer who went through the entire process of prison administration from a rookie prison personnel, onwards a regular duty as custodial officer up to his retirement—at the full age of 65; an entire period of 40 years in government service. This is his story. And here is the chronicle of a correctional officer, Prison Guard Romeo Herrera.
Romy belonged to a sizeable clan from Bulacan. And he was according to him an uncontrollable youth, a rebel from the start. This he would show through his incessant and numerous challenges to the norms of the community, at times participating in melee and some troubles in the neighbourhood. His youthful intolerance led him to explore life on the street until he was lured to its attractions and in so doing, forgot to complete his formal education. He would however compensate such educational deficiency by his reading chore. He may have been busy with the ways of the streets but he would oftentimes repair at home with a book in his hand.
For a while, he joined the police force but eventually, entered the prison service. The youthful custodial personnel was given a series of challenging exposures but what would create an imprint on his career was his reassignment at Davao Penal Colony. Those were times of upheaval. Dapecol was at that time the hot bed of violence. The bloody turmoil in Dapecol was incomparable; the obtaining riots in Muntinlupa during the period were veritable picnics only. Scores of death would be reported daily and in one sweep, the entire prison population of Dapecol could have been wiped out. At that time, prisoners were pitted against one another. A despicable war between gangs. Romy was there reconciling his view on brutality and recording every horror at the back of his memory. He would later write this down and he would have his diary on the most gruesome incidents in this part of the corrective agency.
“We were all assembled in front of the prison gates to check on the violent streak of prisoners. There was an uncanny silence in the camp. The lighting system during that time was also eerie to say the least. Some prisoners tried to destroy the perimeter bulbs and only a few have survived the stoning binge. There was some drought in the area but all of us were a bit disturbed on the muddy pathway as we negotiated the by-ways to check the prisoners. To our surprise, we never realized that we were treading not on mud but on the free flowing and oozing fresh blood!”
That was the time when hundreds of prisoners died at the hands of their violent counterparts in the series of hostilities and gang wars that happened. And those incidents were just for starters. Romy would bear witness to a number of hostage drama in the years to come. Davao Penal Colony at that time was virtually the violent capital of the prison system, not only in the country but most likely in the whole of Asia.
He would later make use of this recollection and skill in jotting down notes in his career in the prison service. He served the longest as one of the most incisive analyst in his office as investigator. He was popular among his peers but unpopular among those who committed breaches. Because of his situation, he would oftentimes be subjected to a lot of innuendoes coming as it were from the prison community which was divided into several factions. Davao Penal Colony at that time was controlled by a handful of families whose patriarchs were once prison authorities. Fairness meant having to kowtow and turning a blind eye on something erroneous. And he must survive this not by any principled stand but through the labyrinth of technical referral.
He would later be assigned in the escorting unit in charge of prisoners immersed in farm maintenance. He must recall the ways of the streets, the readiness to inflict violence if needed, and strike if necessary on every occasion where he is exposed and defied. Dealing with prisoners directly is not a walk in the park. It is always a period for alertness. There is no such thing as trust and friendship. Prison security must be defined in an objective manner. A singular miscue is enough to render one’s career in tatters. He knows it, because as an investigator, he could clearly evaluate any action from a neutral perspective.
The tension and pressure of prison service unfortunately had a toll on his health. The night shift is a telling episode. For a good 15 day period, he must have to contain a schedule outside his body clock. He must be wide awake and it goes without saying that his kidneys must also be overworked. He must carry with him something to munch on so that his eyelids will not give in. As a consequence, his digestion must likewise be overburdened too and this is bad for his heart and blood pressure. For every commotion in prison is an increase in his adrenalin and this is not a good sign of preparedness if one is already approaching the senior years. Later, he would stay atop snooping at the community as the man on the post tower.
It is not actually the prison community where he finds the challenge worthy of his tenacious character. It is more in relating to his peers. Prison service has a way of influencing the corps of officers and even their values and principles are literally changed and reconfigured. Prison is a world full of deception and if only to survive, its denizen must defraud their minds to stay sane. Romy along with his peers, together with his superiors and friends, family included must stay away if only to render stability of emotion. He must train his mind to transcend what to him are shadows of unrealistic figures. Prison is a caricature of humanity and this he must always bear in mind. Not so much as to commit this to his memory but to project this illusion to his environment. Prison service for Romy is no laughing matter no matter how incongruous the situation would present. He never found anything amusing although everything seemed to be a parody of what real life should be. He must influence those around him on this score, notwithstanding the disrespect one gets for disclosing the truth.
All throughout his years in the prison service were devoted to serious study. His retirement has become a respite. After more than four decades in a veritable strait jacket, it is only now that he can show an honest smile. A grin that discloses a triumphant conclusion to a critical performance. Finally, he has to hang up his authoritarian uniform and now is free to see the world in the glory of a completed mission. He may not have changed radically the correctional system but he was there along with fellow defenders when it was jolted, shook and almost subdued. And he was there holding on the resistance to the horrors of violence, a strong cover which the organization has sustained until it has gained its full bearing.
He may not have contributed to the prestige of the institution but he was a pillar of its strength when it was at that time badly needed. He was never promoted in a system where bias was the order of the day. But in my estimation, as the fellow has undergone numerous disputes and has survived every confrontation, having fulfilled further the vigor of institutional discipline, he should be as he is, an active part of the prison’s unsung heroes.
MY FATHER, MA MON LUK AND PRISON IN MY MIND
For those in their 50s onwards in this 21st century and if they happen to be residents of Manila and its environs, this topic is familiar. It is a topic alright although it is more described as a resto. I am of course referring to the title of this essay, the name of the eatery, Ma Mon Luk. I don’t care whether Jolibee, Mc do, Inasal, Chow King will never, even for a while take a glimpse of their competitor, an aging one and most probably, the first to have moved towards introducing Chinese noodles, which in the 60s is a sui generis kind of eatery. I don’t give a hoot also if these newcomers will charge me for blind advertisement but there is something emotionally and personally significant whenever I think of that bistro.
MaMonLuk is one place that evokes memories. Without it, I would not even define in a good and wholesome perspective what parental concern is. That is what I meant by memories and MaMonLuk, it is better appreciated like mami and siopao, like bihon and service tea, like siomao and softdrinks. It was the first resto where my father brought me. I was a fledging 3 year old troll at that time but I could vividly remember what my father ordered—a bowl of simmering mami and a bulky blob siopao. It was also my first initiation to a life of “crime” because I saw how my father would empty a bottle of toothpicks and would surreptiously pocket it. If you think that it was petty, back home under my father’s bed, there were two sacks tucked neatly and one could find it stacked with millions of toothpicks. I would even venture to say that it amounted to several tree trunks already! It could have been a testament of how dexterous my father’s hand could be. But I was a kid with no orientation yet on what is thievery and what is not. My father actually had a penchant in collecting anything that interests him from tissues to toothpick. It would later progress to books and ball pens. Well, name it and he’s got the collection galore.
No, I never repeated what I saw in my father’s tact, but what stuck to me was the habit of eating at Mamonluk wherever a branch was on site. We would eat at Quiapo branch and it still exists today. It was for me a landmark and a mandatory pilgrimage area. Whenever I am in town, I would forget dropping by the church, which is always close anyway, and would proceed almost automatically to the resto.
Back then, there was a branch of the resto at Cubao, a good 15 minute ride from our residence. Whenever I would win in a game of chess in the neighbourhood, I would immediately loaf around Cubao, where the first malls were introduced and then enjoy the hot soup at Mamonluk. My day would be made after that. I was in high school then. When I was in college, I would frequent also the branch along Quezon Boulevard, a little across the Sto Domingo Church where Ninoy’s badly mangled body would be displayed before the funeral parade. It was a good branch because from the pictures decorating the wall near the cashier one would see famous entertainers having their meals—the likes of Ike Lozada, Richard Gomez, Eddie Garcia, etc. For a while, it was my gastronomic mecca until a friend notified me on a new branch across Ateneo in Katipunan road, quite close to our neighbourhood. I used to play basketball in the playground of Ateneo grade school campus and it was good news to have good old resto just along the fringes.
A few years later, the branch in Ateneo would close down and the one at Cubao would follow suit. Another branch would pop up along EDSA near the junction of Kamuning across the Northern Police District precinct. I would spend quite a time in said branch also and I would come across some entertainers too like Ariel Ureta during his prime in television. The Kamuning branch would later close down too.
The Quiapo branch aside from the Quezon boulevard store is the only remaining edifice that would remind me of the past. It has been the only restaurant my father would patronize. It is also the only eatery I would never tire of ordering its specialty. I won’t mind insinuations that its siopao is great because cat’s meats are used. I wouldn’t mind also if the special flavour comes from the dirty surroundings. All I know is that I have never been sick all those times I would gobble up the entire mami and siopao in one sitting.
My father passed away a few years ago but whenever I would occupy our favourite corner in said restaurant, even if I am alone, I could feel that my father is around enjoying the meal too. Like an instinct, while waiting for the bowl and the extra potage to be served in less than a minute, I would, in dexterous fashion, grab the bottle of toothpick and would place it in front of me, the position my father would situate. Of course, the container will neither move nor empty itself. Just a little exercise in tickling my father’s spirit, some kind of a ritual.
I would recall during meal time and I still could vividly hear how my father would explain to me the secret of staying active. He would coach me to walk regularly and never to use elevator. His strong knees would accompany his dreary days in the hospital after undergoing a series of deadly surgeries. He would survive all of the medical procedures done to him. As a matter of fact, he would even outlive all his physicians who projected that my father will not live for another year. My father would outlast all of them for a good three decades more!
It’s really funny that Mamonluk would occupy a significant part in our domestic life. I have never seen up close my father at home. He would leave early while I was still sleeping and would be home late at night, and I was already fast asleep. It is only when there were no classes and at that time, there were plenty of street demonstrations, when we would be given a chance to have a heart to heart talk, not in the confines of our living room at home but in our favourite corner in Mamonluk. It has become a sentimental part of my growing up. It has been a foyer in my adulthood too.
Even my future employment in the prison service was also served in this eatery. Here my father would indulge his fellow faculty members, all prison officers, introducing me to them and goading me to be one of them also. And these penal authorities would vigorously encourage me to be part of the system. I would hear a lot of inspiring stories about loyalty and friendship and some challenging ones too, like the horrors of riots and tales of violence. These and all over a bowl of hot and flavoursome gumbo.
After a few exciting years as a psychologist in the national penitentiary, I would also indulge my fellow officers over a hot bowl of mami and I would arouse their interest and sustain the same attention in corrective work to my peers. The scent in its dining hall and the tasty soup made up my resolve which later I would reckon as incentive to work harder. It was a bit silly but I was thinking that if I ascend in the prison service, I would have greater time to spend loafing around Quiapo, eating at the resto and completing my day. I even had a ridiculous thought that if I become a top official of the penitentiary I would have the authority to open a branch of said restaurant in my turf. It is not about food actually. It is not about revenues. It is not about a career in culinary arts. It is about being with my father.
When my father passed away, it is not in the cemetery nor in his room at home that I find emotional reminiscence but in a rundown corner of the restaurant. There I could feel my father smiling heartily, laughing uncontrollably, talking loudly, gesturing mightily followed by a deafening guffaw, signifying fullness.
I am always out of town and seldom would I find time to move around in Manila. But if I have a chance, eating in Mamonluk is a fare I direly fidget not because of the exotic taste of its delightful broth but more on the memories I still shared with my father. Having meals in that place is like communing with my beloved patriarch.
THE ROLITO GO CASE
“Sir, sorry to disturb you but I wish to seek an audience with you and seek your advice.” That was what an inmate whispered to me while conducting the rounds at the maximum wing of the national penitentiary. “Officer”, I motioned my security aide, “ get back at the fellow and escort him in my office after my rounds.” Nobody gets near me whenever I go into an inspection tour in the area but one inmate dared to cross my path, darted innocently as a matter of fact, enough to hear his plea if only in a fleeting manner.
Back in my office, standing by the door, was a lanky Chinese looking person, in regulation tangerine suit, eyes indicating sleeplessness, hair almost thin, head bowed and any pretension and air of accomplishment gone as he followed my gesture to enter the office. I asked him to be seated and he introduced himself. Of course, I know him, as I know a lot of prisoners included my high security risk file. He was charged for murder and given the verdict of life imprisonment for shooting to death a student. He is prisoner Rolito T. Go. The T there is Tambunting, a familiar sound when one is in dire need of a loan. The Tambunting Pawnshop comes to mind easily. Rolito is a grandchild of this Tambunting entrepreneur and he was quite uneasy for it.
“Good…morning…sir.” offered Rolito as I motioned for him to seat properly and face me. I waved at his escort guard to leave the prisoner so that there will be privacy in his consultation. “How are you?” I inquired. “Sir….I am already nearing my 15th year in this facility (to date, he has served almost 20 years already, good conduct time allowance included) and I just wanted to have a clean breast of it. I am only asking for a decent officer whom I can confess and I have unloaded the burden in my heart already. Pardon my intrusion and for disrupting your time. I am terribly sorry for what I have done and it has become a terrible lesson for me. It took three seconds off my rational thought and there it was, a person is killed. Now I am serving time for life. Its messy. I am terribly sorry.”
“How is it now Rolito? Have you expressed your apologies to the family of the victim? Granting that you are about to serve your time and you have never heard anything, like a response or reaction, from your accuser, have you made some efforts to reach out and perhaps express your regrets and act of contrition to them?” I inquired without out sounding like I am pontificating.
“I…am terribly confused and lost … sir…and could not get my proper bearing…sir…I do not know now what to think…” replied Rolito haltingly as if seeking for some clearer terms to describe how he feels at the moment.
“What is your purpose then, why see me, what do you want from my office?”
“Thank you sir for the time you gave me…I just wanted to confess without sounding foolish. Some may think that I have become sterile and insane if I will express my concerns to my fellow inmates and with your guards….sir…to be heard, to be listened to and to be understood is enough sir…and with that I have made my day already sir…I am really sorry it has come to this. If I could only turn back the clock of time.”
“Ok, then, if you want something formal from me, just write a note and I will answer it.”
Rolito Go in prison is a case study worthy for Asian Institute of Management (AIM) review. He was admitted in the summer of 2005, and he had only with him a small pillow and a dipper (tabo). We would later discover that his pillow was actually a small cloth bag where his shirt and shorts are folded neatly. He had nothing, no wallets, no secret pockets, no valuables, not even coins. Like ordinary prisoners, he came in without fanfare, without resources, subdued, totally submissive. After a month, he was a self proclaimed millionaire inside the penitentiary. How he did it requires a bit of sleuthing. He made money using procedural lapses in the flow of handicrafts from within the prison camp to the marketers outside. It was a simple math applied through the gates. A completed handicraft has a price tag. A certain percentage was to be levied on items passing through the access. Rolito bought a number of handicraft items but instructed the inmate-craftsmen not to apply the final touches, in other words, no varnish is to be used. There were no levies imposed on incomplete products.
And so, Rolito would buy out handicrafts and those at the receiving end will complete the final touches. Rolito was able to transact handicraft export business without having to experience taxation and in the process got his first million. He would repeat the same operation for almost a year until an impression would circulate that he was able to buy gangs and buildings where inmate craftsmen were conducting their handicraft production. Nice one. A clean way of earning and earning big. Until prison administration discovered the tact and a specific taxation system adopted. Rolito folded up after several years of handicraft business.
He was able to save in the process. He had accumulated funds and used it as capital to circulate and share it with prison officers through lending. Government workers were perceived to be poorly paid and that they were oftentimes victims of loan sharks. Rolito offered assistance, charging measly interest rates, as against the prevailing usurious rates, on money for various financing requirements. It clicked. He was like selling pancakes! And his name reverberated on the four corners of the prison agency. His tact is simple. He allows loan without collateral and if not paid will never extend loan to the creditor anymore. In a scale of 10, only 2 would renege on repayment, and having his returns from the 8 good payers, he gets his profits just the same. From said operation, he would be able to buy a building a few kilometres from the prison reservation, on a nearby town and would organize an office where his family and visitors could conduct also a loan business.
Rolito was a construction magnate before he got into a road rage charge. To his credit, his company was afforded the project to construct the national road of Palawan province, a slim island 400 kilometers from north to south. One among several road construction projects he would forge with government. He was a successful business man with a keen sense of making clean and unsoiled commercial venture mostly conducted with government. And he was moving very fast on the same lane where the Sys, Tans and Gokongweis were traversing to attain the status of big enterprise until three seconds caught up with him.
THE SCORE IN THE CASE AGAINST PRISON LEADERSHIP
The National Penitentiary was in frenzy for renovation. The filthy corners, the spoiled and soiled looks, the dingy pathways and unmaintained nooks had to give way for upgrading. Prestige must begin somewhere. The new Director of Corrections (Gen. Gaudencio Pangilinan) wanted to promote a good projection for corrections and the rusty look must have to go. In the process, he must have to overcome lethargy and conservatism, indifference and indolence, sluggishness and stupor if only to bring to the fore the real corrective outlook of the agency. Further on, the new prison leader does not like any hanky panky, fraud, corruption; everybody must have to toe the line. It was an unsettling scenario for those used to receiving some form of pay-offs. But every irregularity must have to banish.
For a while, the path of righteousness has been defined. The military man at the helm was having a grand time pushing what could have been a dedicated crusade against government inaction and apathy. Yet he, wittingly or unwittingly, has already declared a war and the battle lines were almost defined. A singular event would have sparked a minute explosion but it could turn into a conflagration if left unattended. And then it happened. An affected officer went beyond his usual griping, having nothing to squeeze from transactions, until he packed some incomplete documents as evidence and raised hell in media. It was a make or break affair for him. If he succeeds, then the usual shakedown from transactions will be revived; that is, the leader is sent somewhere outside of the agency. If he fails, then back to hiding, or to the frying pan, whichever, as they say, revolution swallows its own children. He was of course backed up by the usual suspects in the transaction halls of the agency and he has nothing to lose. As it were, he may even be gaining some material assistance already.
Media picked up what could have been a piece worthy of sensationalism. It would be a hot copy. The prison leadership is a political appointee and he would be a grand piece of headline to shake the political leadership. Never mind if the accusations were all incorrect, the point was, the public could relish on something worth their dreary days. And as if on cue, almost instantly, news was all over. The integrity of the prison leadership has finally been brought on the slide of the microscope and the public was excited for some scandals.
Suddenly, the prison leadership was stalled from his crusade. He must have to account himself from the expose slapped on him. He must have to come clean. Never mind if the one accusing him came from a sully source, he must have to be lily white to deserve public sympathy. Prison reforms therefore must have to pause to give way to explanation. The Department of Justice must have to investigate to ascertain the issue. Never mind if its trivial, never mind if it is a plain gripe, never mind if it is inconsequential. The point is that the issues which has grabbed prime time news are addressed and ventilated accordingly.
And so, or quite eventful, the DOJ in a move calibrated to smooth the feathers of an excited media, came up with a fact finding panel and the prison leadership is called to explain. He must have to account for every evidence submitted, never mind, if it came from a polluted source, the so called poison tree, or from elsewhere. The point is, the prison leader must slow down, stop formulating improvements and if necessary just to submit himself for the inquiry. That is how government is. It must be given a way, sensitive as it were, on every question to be laid down. Well, again, never mind if service grounds to a halt. Never mind the distractions. Never mind if progress is waiting. The noisy crowd, a handful of them, must be appeased. That is also what is happening in national government when it is attacked by a few disgruntled groups. That is what is meant by insurgency. That is what is meant by decadence. In this situation, a localized version, it is that which is already obtaining. Yet the prison leader must have to attend, leave his post if necessary, ignore the changes and reforms he is crusading for a while and allow him to be subjected to scrutiny.
The panel has started its probe. And the prison leadership along with his staff was huddled into the conference room. Questions were asked. Documents were shown. It is not a trial yet; the inquiry is more on understanding and ascertaining the facts. In other words, there are no sub judice rule violations to be reckoned at the moment. There is no case to speak of but there is already some semblance of it.
And the inquiry goes on. There are receipts to be studied, materials which came from nowhere. There are transactions to be analyzed. There were allegations imputed but there is no clarity of purpose. It has been bannered that the prison leadership has abused his post. He merely ordered what in government is inconceivable: No Drugs, No Bribes, No Fraternization. He reordered correctional administration and this caused a lot of discomfort in an agency known for its ultra conservatism. He defined in clear terms his intention to bring prestige in a blighted prison environment. But he used his military orientation and in a civilian outfit used to something unstructured, this is unthinkable. Yet he made already a lot of inroads.
His work ethics is a terrifying schedule which any civilian agency would never wish to dawn upon them. He starts work at exactly 6 AM and leaves the office at 9 PM! A good 15 hours a day, daily including Saturdays and Sunday even holidays! He maintains that schedule from the date he assumed the post of Director up to the present, another good seven months, without let up. He is a nightmare as far as the regular 8 hour stretch of a bureaucrat and almost a curse as far as the lethargic environment of government service. No wonder, he is unpopular in some sectors but for the idealists in government, he is heaven sent.
As it were, the prison leader has already made an imprint, a lasting point. He improved the entire administrative infrastructure, office and systems in a period less than a year, what could have been a combination of several attempts made by other leaders, even if merged, since the agency was founded. I have worked with a number of prison directors in the past, some 15 of them in the course of my 35 years in the prison service and no one can measure up to the standards set by this leader. No one can even come close to the improvements he introduced. But what is even more enduring is his honesty and sincerity to reform the entire prison service, a quality never sustained even in the farthest corner of the bureaucracy.
I am lucky to be a part of such a historic episode, an event actually given the magnitude of its effect on the whole of corrective service in the country.
THE TYCOON AND ME
It was an ordinary albeit a dreary day at Davao Penal Colony sometime in 1994, when I was about to complete discussing with my organizational constituents my view on how to manage the penal facility that an officer came rushing in to inform me something. I thought it was somewhat grave, as in an emergency. It has been almost a tradition when a new leader assumes command in a penal institution, he oftentimes is greeted with a so called baptism of fire and the whole organization, including the prison community, would wait for the response. Will he vacillate or not? If he does vacillate, then goodbye to governance, his days as administrator are numbered. If he acts accordingly, then he is made. But the information was not that sudden, nor instant. The fellow merely wanted me to act on the request of Tagum Agricultural Development Corporation (Tadeco) founder for an audience. The founder is the main man himself, an enterprising genius, the person who conceptualized a program that would, in less than a generation, would reap for the country revenue enough to jump start the national economy. He is the star in that part of the province where I was assigned. He is Don Antonio O. Floirendo.
Any legitimate resident of Mindanao knows who Don Antonio Floirendo is. He is the symbol of Banana industries in the country. He is the philanthropist who shaped the corporate social responsibility of the private sector with his charity and social work. Through his singular effort, he was able to provide employment for hundreds, if not thousands of people in Mindanao. He is therefore a legend and has approach the level of heroic stature. He was once suspected as an associate of the discredited former strongman Ferdinand Marcos, although in the final analysis, it was found out that Marcos needed him more than Floirendo needs a Marcos. The sequestration order on the properties of Don Floirendo was immediately lifted. Of course, trivia it may seem, Don Antonio is the father of former three-termer Congressman Antonio (Tony Boy) Floirendo. Don Antonio, likewise is the grandfather of currently Congressman Anton Lagdameo, husband of award winning thespian, Dawn Zulueta.
I was escorted by the men of Don Antonio and off we went to his vacation house, a good 6 kilometers from Davao Penal Colony. It was his guest house in Davao del Norte, one among several houses he built for his personal and business purposes. It was a manor sitting on top of a hilly lot, flanked by a big sprawling lawn with a family size swimming pool and a helipad. On a clear day, from the resort looking veranda, one could see the horizon lined up with green banana tress, thousands of them and bluish mountain range. Having arrived a few minutes later, I was ushered into the living room and there was the man, standing with a little stoop but stern looking from the way he posed. He turned around and greeted me. “So you are the new Superintendent of Dapecol young man.” I was of course a little shy, acting coyly so that I will not exude a projection of abrasiveness. “Yes…sir,” I uttered, showing some acting also. My escort withdrew from the scene and we were alone inside the beautifully arranged mansion. I could feel how poor I was in the face of such luxurious surroundings. But I could not care less since I am with a great entrepreneur, the icon of southern Philippine development. It is just a pity that I have no camera to capture such rare moment. Having no photograph to show, my interaction would only be suspected.
The grand old man, he was at that time around a spritely 78 year old executive, walked slowly and whispered, “How are you?” He placed his arm around my shoulder and continued, “You know, Dapecol is a good place. It has been a no man’s land before but now it is a busy hub on production. Prisoners are earning something and there is little unemployment in this part of the province. Dapecol has a special spot in my heart. ”
“I am privileged to be your visitor and my organization is twice privileged for your contribution to our rehabilitation sir.” I almost replied haltingly but I must sound confident lest he might misunderstand me for an idiot. “May I be extremely privileged sir to know the secret of your success?” I immediately asked. I was hoping to capture the thoughts, the principles, the ideas and yes, those precepts which guided this man to overcome hardship and attain what others could only have dreamt for. There were lots of pictures in his house, indicating his ascension to high society, and of course the house, almost like a dream palace. Success is shown from the design, the position, even how the manor was configured, the choice of furniture, the view, everything. He is indeed the most successful businessman of Mindanao and even the political kingpins reckon his presence and accomplishments. He must have a set of guidelines, if not amulet, for winning. Truly, the brain of this man must have a lot of thoughts and his belief may even be a factor. He walk through solemnly and behind him are achievements.
Don Antonio smiled and retorted, “You are the only person who asked me that. I was expecting those close to me to seek the same query but no one dared asked me the question. I thought that I have not made so much yet and so I have to persevere further. Anyway, since you asked me that question, I really would like to share it to you. It is a secret actually. I would have kept it a long time ago and would have kept it further. But age is catching up and I better turn it over, I mean the secret, to anyone who would have the readiness to receive it.” In my mind, I was already congratulating myself, for my acting, for my projection, for persuading the man to surrender to me his secret. I was even trying to retrace my steps, reviewing if I really projected someone who is capable of applying the secret, or I merely looked like somebody who is a weakling in need of some nutritious words. Anyway, I was about to receive the secret and whatever could be the reason, the point is I have succeeded where others failed or were just too timid to explore. I was all ears but I have to feign inferiority. Superior people hate braggadocio. I was even trying to make some limping movement to project some kind of foolhardiness.
The grand old man limped also as if telling me that we both are trying to outsmart another but he leaned close to my right ear and whispered, “Listen to this young man, keep three things in your mind and never depart from it. These are my secrets. One: HARD WORK,………. two: HARD WORK, and finally, three: HARD WORK.” The pause on the first, made my heart pound harder. I thought that I would have to get my pen to scribble notes. But it was followed by two more points similar to the first. That was after all THE secret. I nodded my head to confirm that I have understood his statement. I tried to look satisfied and fulfilled although I was expecting some kind of a treaty in summary form. It was indeed a formula, a simple one, but a very difficult act to undertake. I have known a lot of people who tried their very best, even using “hard work” as their middle name but they barely could survive. Nonetheless, having been given the magic words, it would amount to a closing remark and basis for my departure from the scene.
After sipping the last drop of coffee from the mug, I expressed gratitude for the time offered and of course for the secrets shared. He had some parting words though, “Mr. Superintendent, if you have any concerns which you wanted addressed, and just let me know. I will send a delegation of my officers to your office to help you out in your other requirements.” That was signal for me to bid the good man adieu. It was a pleasing moment, a delightful episode. For a while, I was with a tycoon, a man of substance and he shared his luxury to me. While I was about to walk slowly towards the main door, my host gestured for me to slow down.
He tagged my arms and said, “By the way, young man, you know, you remind me of myself in my youth.” Of course, I know fully well that Don Antonio at times could be playing politician. Don Antonio has a mestizo feature, aquiline nose, stern eyes, thin lips and the complexion of a Caucasian. My personality is the exact opposite. He motioned to me to listen for another instruction, “Before you go, I will show you a room in this house which nobody has ever entered. It is my room. No one has seen what is inside, but I want you, as my special friend and guest, to have a privilege of seeing and appreciating it.” I was nonplussed to hear it. I thought that my host would finally disclose how wealthy he is. I was already imagining the golden desk, the bed with diamond tiara on the canopy, the library and a number of vaults. He reached from his pocket the keys and fitted it on the knob. My heart was pounding hard, my eyes were no longer blinking, my temperature is almost feverish. I hope nothing would be lost should I come through the room or else I am a goner. It was one place which I do not wish to get lost but of course, it is one place any mortal would desire.
The door was opened and the Don reached for the switch. It was pitch dark. I could not from my position determine the space inside. The house has a dim light and it could not penetrate into the darkened room. He accosted me a few steps from the door towards the room, the farthest we would negotiate. The lights were turned on and behold, the area was empty. “Here is my room Mr. Superintendent. You may wonder how come there is nothing in it” he curtly said. I replied, “Well, …sir…it’s a prerogative….” I could not exactly find the right word actually because I am dumbfounded. He continued, “wealth is not what you keep, it is what you share.” Then we retreated , the man locked the door of his room and he escorted me to the main door. As I walked away, I could feel the eyes and presence of the great man accompanying me up until my escort showed up. How I wish to look back but I was immersed with thoughts he gave me.
From that time on, I would keep the memory of such encounter and express enlightenment in all my undertaking as a government officer.
(After a year, I would leave Dapecol to take another assignment. In 2001, I would be back and pay a courtesy visit to the Don. A year and a half, I would be recalled to central office. In 2007, I would return back to Dapecol and the Don, already in his 90s, still spritely and still exuding the secret smile I would notice from the first time I saw him. Already 95, the Don is still hale and calm. I would meet him occasionally and every time our paths would cross, which at this time is seldom, and whenever our eyes would meet, he would greet me with an enigmatic smile as if telling me that everything I have should be shared. For me, it was as if he was telling me that that is the way to be wealthy.)
ROBIN PADILLA: Once upon a time in Prison
In the late 90s, there was only one personality , a budding actor, who , by his lonesome, captured the hearts of the youth. He was spunky, ruggedly handsome, rough and care free. He was a woman’s man, and it has been said that all his leading ladies in all the films where he was featured were simply enamoured and attracted. He was also a staple for news. Every time his films would reach box office level, here is the kid distributing goods to marginal communities. He was everywhere and he was an icon during the period. Until something happened. He was caught by authorities hugging a number of firearms and worst, without licenses. Call it juvenile braggadocio.
What happened next was that he was being arraigned and a couple of months thereafter, he was sentenced for 17 years for illegal possession of firearms. The glamour boy along with his projection as bad boy came to a heel. His impending imprisonment merely confirmed his projection, well, as a bad boy in real terms.
It was at the peak of his career in film industry when he was clamped inside prison. And he was a picture of dejection. For several weeks, he could not express himself in a manner suited to his persona and stature. Here was an extraordinary person, gallant and generous to his fans, the masses, serving time and if he would be released according to the prescription of law, he may turn out to be another Berting Labra (another thespian who was charged for murder, sentenced to death penalty but was later, after 13 years, released on acquittal). That is, once he would be released and would be goaded to re-enter the field of entertainment, he would no longer be playing the role of a boy-next-door but a villainous father already.
His entry into the prison camp in itself was stuff for movies already except that the one playing the role, if at all a true reflection of how he dealt with the immersion, would be less than an action flick and more of dramatics. Robin was always crying during his first few months. I know, I was his jailor at the Medium Security Camp at that time. He was feeling dejected although at times he would feel he was just being lucky. Accordingly, he was lucky to have suffered incarceration, luckier than most of his peers who were hooked on drugs and had gone to life hereafter. If only for said thoughts he would celebrate eventually his imprisonment as a gift from the gods.
A year later, he would be assisted by his fellow inmates in redefining his life. At that time, a typhoon ravaged the prison reservation and my quarters collapsed. I had a whole library where my books were virtually submerged in flood waters. The books, several sack full actually, were brought by my security personnel to be dried on a vacant lot adjacent to a prison dormitory. It was the dorm where Robin was assigned for safe keeping. It was during this period that Robin, assisting other inmates in arranging the books, when he would be transfixed on one material. The book had a good artistic cover and it has barely been damaged by water but just the same it was lined up along with others. Robin picked it up and on the second page, he saw some scribbles. It says that the book protected the face of the owner. It was my book and I was reading it when I had a freak car accident in one of my provincial sorties in Mindanao. The vehicle turned turtle five times and while swirling, I opened the book and wrapped it on my face. Should I die as a result of the accident, my face will not be disfigured, so I thought. Those who were with me in that trip were rushed to the hospital, their bodies badly mangled. In my case, I had no tell tale signs of the accident. I even do not have a bruise at all. And so, while watching over my fallen companions in the hospital, I wrote a little marking on the book. The title of the book is Holy Qu’ran. (We have just left the Mosque after I had my baptism into the Moslem fold when the accident happened.)
From there on Robin would claim the book as his and would try to read seriously what was in there. Within the dormitories also were a group of Muslim prisoners. One happens to be an Imam, or an Islamic teacher and scholar. He would accost and tutor Robin on his quest to understand some passages from the Book. It was there where Robin felt that Islam would be his religious guide. It was at that time when Robin would be baptised to the Muslim fold, and he would never depart from his new faith. Like a typical Muslim, he would shun meat and began his culinary trek towards vegetarian diets.
He would likewise join his fellow Muslims in the camp praying five times a day and would haggle for donations so that a corner in the camp will be made into a Mosque. Nur Misuari would drop by and offer the initial contract to construct the sacred facility.
Since Robin was at his peak in the film industry, he would be regularly visited by his fellow thespians, actors and actresses, stars and starlets, one after another. My office was virtually a branch of tinsel town whenever these entertainers would flock the prison camp. I would however retreat at the back portion of my office and allow Robin to meet his confederates in the formal and ceremonial ambiance of a highly disciplined workplace. Not until after the visit where I would courteously guide the visitors to the exit gate but not after having my picture taken with them around. Call me “bakya” but I was for a time a center of attention whenever I would post my picture back home.
Senator Ramon Revilla was then one of the legislators who were drawn into the sad plight of people like Robin. He argued in Congress that the law punishing individuals for committing illegal possession of firearms should not suffer incarceration in a manner as seen during the martial law period. The law was actually passed after martial law was declared. Senator Revilla was able to push for the amendment and would pass a law abridging the penalty clause for said violation from a stiff 17 years down to 6 years. That technically reduced also the period which Robin will serve his time.
The law became operational and was applied to Robin; and, he was immediately reclassified to minimum security status. There were neither supplications nor insinuations yet on the preferential treatment of prisoners or what has been pejoratively referred to as VIPs at that time. Robin was assigned to the Director’s quarters as his assigned area and he would traverse by foot the area from the minimum security camp where he was subject to the mandatory head count on a daily basis. In walking through from one station to another, he would be greeted by pedestrians, mostly the youth from nearby schools, and he would get his comeuppance and realize that his star status had not yet waned yet.
Having recovered from the pangs of incarceration and founded confidence in his new found faith, he sought advice from his entertainment handlers. A few months before he would be released, a movie was shot and he was back in tinseltown. The movie however did not make it as a block buster but nonetheless, it re-introduced Robin back into the fold of arts.
Having completed more than four years in prison, he was made eligible for the grant of parole. A few weeks later, he would be released. He was grateful to legislators, to his prison supervisors and to his peers. He came out hale, healthy and confident to face the world, a sad world he left and with him around, his pledged to make it a stable one.
To date, Robin would volunteer to lead his countrymen pursue concord in Muslim Mindanao, this time not as an on-looker but as an Islamic scholar willing to sacrifice in favour of ending war and pursuing for a lasting peace.
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 suggested to my lieutenants that I intend to abolish all gangs. My attempt reached my superior. 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. All prison leadership wished was for a stable and a quiet administration of all penal establishment. Besides, if prison administration was into some kind of a transaction, the more silence it would demand to its constituency. 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 merely be there at the sideline, governing how the custodial and security personnel are deployed and nothing more. 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.
It was during these period in my career that I began to reinvent my concerns. From an active administrator to a sedate analyst. Subsequently, I started to write a series of references which later I published into books. I would also venture into lectureships in criminal justice administration and dabble in consultancy.
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 and revert to literature, 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. (When I got back my command years later and was instructed to pioneer a correctional facility, I began to rummage my notes and transformed my concepts into a workable system. The correctional institute for women in Mindanao, is a concept transformed into a reality.)
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 here is a place considered 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.
In between my assignment and command duties, I would sit down to review how prison administration has progressed, not only in the country but all throughout the world. Technology has made it easy for anyone who wanted to compose a scholarly on a specific field. The cyberspace is a great place to download ideas and materials. And so, I hop from one concern to another and it is indeed a course not only in adjustment but more on making one’s time profitable to government service.
Prison service, for all there is to it, is a test for survivors, nothing more.