RETIRING IN THE PRISON SERVICE
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.