Monthly Archives: October 2013
Every last week of October since 1998, the Philippine correctional system celebrates Prison Awareness Week, like Fire Prevention Week or anything where social concern is focused or is persuaded to focus on a particular period.
Over at the National Penitentiary, at New Bilibid Prison, the face of corrective service in the country, where the so called basest, worst, most dreaded offenders are confined, the Prison Awareness Week is celebrated as National Correctional Consciousness Week, where it features the creative side of imprisonment. Here during the period, all penal establishments are all in display mode. Handicrafts of varying expressions are shown to the public.
The prison community is where one could find all offenders who were sensibly removed from free society, to be segregated from their community of orientation, physically deprived of family life, forced to live in a highly communal, almost dictatorial and regimented, grossly formulated routine of daily life for a specified judicially prescribed period.
Prison, it can be said, is an artificial community where everything is enforced externally and internally rendering life in a highly pressured and tensed situation almost unbearable to sustain. Deception is always the order of the day.
If there is anything genuine in every interpersonal contact, it is always centered on the individual interest of offenders. There is nothing social, there is nothing gregarious, there is nothing worth a sacrifice. Everyone is disadvantaged and any privilege offered is seen as a heavenly intervention. Prison is hell and it is never appreciated as home even by the vilest among the denizens.
Here one can find the radical among them de-radicalized by monotony and humdrum. Here one can find the sexually deranged almost castrated by fear. Here one can find the behaviorally maladjusted straightened out by peer group pressure. Anything lived previously as excessive, in prison becomes detoxified by excessive familiarization.
Outsiders never bring rehabilitation, that twin mandate of corrective safekeeping, into the prison community. It is an effect, which is internally formulated by latent frustrations and lamentation. It is brought about by contemplation. It is a personal offering almost a spiritual exercise by those who wish to be redeemed. It is winning over the past that bedeviled his life. It is an advent for change, a reinvention of the self, a birth of another person, a stronger, a firmer, a better one.
This is, at the core, what is celebrated every week of the year and as it culminates on the last day of every last week of October, on every Prison Awareness Sunday.
One dreary day, after the regular headcount, a keeper submits his report. However, there is a twist. One among thousands under his watch is missing. And so, he takes pain to look for this missing inmate. He cannot allow his record besmirched much more so for an impending administrative case in the event that the missing ward has finally been recorded as nowhere. For the security personnel designated as keeper, this is just one of the days he abhorred. For him this could be something like “shit happens!”
Of course, there is always a happy ending. After a thorough search, the officer would later be informed that the inmate has been admitted in the prison hospital. Or, he failed to report back having spent the night with a relative or friend in some dormitories outside of his building. Well, for the inmate who failed to ask permission and got his custodian into a dizzying plane, a few knuckles on his temple could have spelt also something like being given a plate of shit!
In prison, the issue of missing has despicable angle also. Aside from accidental slip, aside from “bangungot”, aside from heart attack, there is the matter of absence from the roll. In this case, the keeper, the patrol and the perimeter guards are haled and investigated for possible lapses and eventually, an administrative charge. Having been penalized for suspension and serving such penalty, the truth usually would stare administration years later. Bones and remains of a chopped person would be unearthed in some compost pit within the camp, a victim of internal strife among prisoners. This is more prevalent than those who would succeed in tunneling through the facility.
For the prison administrator in charge of managing a congested facility, it is not only a matter of shit happening, it is always a case of shit everywhere.
There will always be trouble somewhere. There will always be misunderstanding and outright confusion. In a crowded community, one cannot evade being intrigued and getting involved in a quarrel. For always, there will be those who will impose their will and would impose their influence no matter how trivial it is. And when this happens, disorder is not far. And when there is disorder and there is no semblance of control, hell breaks out.
Frustration is written in every alley of the prison camp. It is decorated not only in a savage way from the facial expression of the denizens; it is marked in every motion where a prisoner wishes to traverse. All prisoners dream of freedom specially those who have served time at least from the way they were informed. All of them wanted to be heard and understood. The phenomenal rise of gangs is born out of this requirement. Gangs represent the baser instinct, the baser hopes and the baser security of an individual member.
To a large extent, gangs are not only gate keepers but shit keepers as well.
For the last 100 days of my administrative assumption as chief security of the national penitentiary there was blissful peace notwithstanding the fact that congestion is the order of the day. Over in the maximum security wing for instance, the overcrowding rate is 159%. Anything that uses that percentage limit would surely snap if not damage an item almost beyond repair if stretched accordingly.
But peace reigned despite congestion. We know it is artificial though. We have determined a list of those to be moved. Only two meetings left before the movement. We are about to ship out and transfer, download a section to penal colonies if only to diffuse the simmering tension brought about by cramming in the national pen. And then, like a volcano, violence erupted in the midst.
Trouble began, well, overcrowding was foremost and secondly, as a consequence of bad habits by inmates which could not be reached institutionally. 11:30 pm, October 8, 2013, a couple of inmates personally got into a disagreement while playing coins in a gambling tryist. Both inmates were known in the area as partners in a transaction involved in narcotics too. Their disagreements grew violent until their hidden crude lethal weapons were drawn and their groups were threatened. Worst, these two inmates were affiliated in different gangs. For a time, their gangs had an alliance and could not be disturbed if the cause of rift is a personal one. The violence that erupted however pushed their gang membership into partisan survival modes.
This is just for starters though. In the same period, I would encounter breaches of security standards, which I must address. Escape, deaths, contraband smuggling, abduction of prison visitors, gang animosity, corruption, are but a few of that which I must have to deal with on a daily basis. I have to monitor every inch of the security complex. As if it is not enough, the prison leadership engaged my services (as Assistant Director for Operations) to tackle not just the National Penitentiary in Muntinlupa but the entire penal system of the country!
That could have been an icing until I was likewise directed to head various administrative boards (Selection and Promotion, Internal Affairs, Hospital, Transfer, IPX, Concessionaires, JVA-MC, etc). That meant the whole cake! If I were a sandwich spread, I would no longer be tasty anymore because of the thin application.
While it can be said that corrective function for officers in the prison service is a simple concern, the whole caboodle of responsibilities is quite unnerving and exhaustive. Worst, the officer corps are not primed to take additional burden. Hence, I must perform like an Olympus god if only to deliver the goods to Mt. Olympus.
And here is the part where the secret of running an entire show can be that rewarding without getting wet, so to speak. Projecting neutrality is fairness in the flesh. It is the closest one can get to touch an ideal like justice. It won’t earn any increase in allowance but it can surely produce an instant effect like respect for the practitioner.
In the prison service, respect is everything.
Of course, it is just a hunch. I have never taken any social pulse yet on the prevailing mood of the prison community with respect to the on-going investigation of the plunderers’ acts of some government officials in the disposition of the so called billion peso scam on PDAF.
If indeed, the courts would determine the guilt of those accused, their entrance into the gates of prisons would literally change the entire institutional landscape.
And if we are talking of institutional landscape, the maximum security camp of New Bilibid Prison is not exactly what, at this point, is considered a Peyton place for virtues and considerations; it is an enclave where a mixture of explosive and implosive characters interact no end. It is the best and the worst the world can offer at the doorstep of humanity.
As a matter of fact, it is even a high ground for suspense; where every minute, every hour, every day is a complete period already. A complete minute or even a day is almost a lifetime. After a full 24 hour, it seems that a generation has already passed.
As a prison administrator assigned at the National Penitentiary, a peaceful day is an accomplishment considered performed in a heroic manner. A minute of stability is an epoch for celebration. This would be the atmosphere given what at present is the situation obtaining. Unless of course, an intervention would take place.
The entry of a new breed of felons would for a moment displace the usual run of men in the prison community. For sure, those convicted in drugs—and they are almost a sector— would be able to level up with those who made their lives miserable. There will be a lot of haggling and negotiations; there will be a lot of noise both in and out.
Inside, the gangs would reinvent their mandate to accommodate and flex protective muscles for these new entrants. Outside, media would have a field day capturing every suspenseful minute on their newfound protagonist and how they would fare for a period.
Suddenly, the prison community is back on the table to be feasted, to be watched closely. Prison administrators will once again bounce from lethargic duties to vigilant purveyors of discipline and fairness. The issue of preferential treatment like VIP considerations by inmates themselves with the entry of celebrity offenders will be noted. It will be amplified to a large extent, not by prison administration but by greater portion of the prison community. There will be a shift of partisan consideration—from the so called merchants of death to the contemporary Ali Baba and the proverbial 40 thieves!
Anything excessive will be crowed and pushed to high heavens until a scandal would paralyze administration. There will be a series of changes and reorganization until finally, media runs out of news or perhaps, another scandal or earth shaking incident would eclipse the bannered prison incidents.
On the reported riot in the National Penitentiary, it is again an example of media sensationalism. A simple brawl inside a small corner in a building of the maximum security camp of New Bilibid Prison turned out in the perception of media as a full scale riot of gargantuan proportion. It is good and bad. It is good so that people will appreciate the blight and damaged condition of a congested facility intended to reform offenders; and it is bad, if it would project a community of a wayward population violently expressing its wayward character.
When we speak of a riot, we mean a total breakdown of discipline expressed in collective viciousness, attacking every sign of order. It is group insanity. It is pristine wilderness in the reverse. In the Philippine setting, there is just one force that can stop it: a respectable person.
I had my haircut in my favorite saloon and my barber was in his usual sharp condition. He was ribbing me for looking fresh. He saw me on television. I was being interviewed in a press conference. I was explaining what was happening in prison. At that time, media was insinuating that there was a riot when it was merely a brawl between two prisoners. Early reports would point out that the trouble was directly caused by a coin game gone wrong. Later reports however would reveal that it started from a failed transaction of contraband between several neighborhood factions.
My barber wanted some clarifications. He said that he was hearing a lot of noise from most of his customers who claim that drugs could easily get into the prison camp. He asked for my reaction. I replied nonchalantly, “I am not alarmed on drugs getting into the prison camp. I am alarmed on drugs circulated in schools and in the street.”
I further explained that “Prisoners must take care of themselves because if something wrong happens to them while serving time, their complainants will only be doubly jubilant. And their complainants are the least people they would rather satisfy. Consuming drugs in prison is suicide. And the complainants if capable would find smuggling drugs in prison in cahoots with prisoners an act of serendipity where both are joined in a partnering of interest. Of course, the bottom line is tragedy for the willing prisoner to harm himself on his behest!”
I even ventured to tell my barber jokingly that “Why not dump all drugs and contrabands in prison so that the free community will be freed from the effects of its general circulation. In prison, only the fools will consume it. Only the fools will devour it. Let it be. Those who will not touch it would see the light of freedom in one piece. Those who succumb to the vice however would eventually perish. The prison is where we cleanse those passing through.”
Of course, there is no such thing in the prison rules that would explicitly allow anything of that sort. As a matter of fact, one must adhere to the textbook solution when dealing with institutional concerns. There are several layers; all are security related, when passing through and in getting into the prison camp. There is no other way to breach that unless rules are bent for consideration as a matter of compromise.
My barber convincingly stated, “In other words sir, drugs in prison is prohibited, even liquors and other intoxicating drinks.”
“That is right.” I said. “Some do-gooders however wanted to treat prisoners as children. Some even would presume that prisoners are there to be transformed into saintly beings; that they should exude with vigor and in their pink of health. That once a person dons the prison uniform, he is already lily clean. That if anything untoward would happen to him, one must blame the world immediately.”
“You know what sir?” My barber cautiously whispered, “If indeed that prison authorities are assiduous in treating prisoners as delicate persons, guarding their welfare and vigilant on human rights, concerned about their safety and protective of their well-being, then I won’t mind committing a crime just so I would become a part of the prison community.”
“Be careful of what you wish, for it might come true!” I counseled my barber. “No matter how grand a prison camp is managed, no matter how ideal one could attempt in its administration, prison remains a prison, a place where losers converge, a place where frustration maintains a face, an environment that redefines partiality. That is a common perception. In reality however, prisoners are winners in the game of life, that they have overwhelmed frustration through tenacity and in their hearts, they belong to an environment that forces them to be creative. Imprisonment is a struggle only reserved for those with strong minds. Imprisonment does not inspire simplicity. I would rather convince you to remain a barber and not anything else.”
“Thank you sir!” my barber exclaimed. “You know what? I once had an ex-convict as customer. Now I realize he deserves some measures of respect. From now on, they will all receive from me a free haircut!”
There is a crime in the statute books that spells out an offense conducted in the heat of ideological struggle. It is called “Rebellion.” It is an act or a show of defiance toward an authority or established convention; and no organized body wanted anyone trying to bullshit their established norms. And so, prison is most likely the place for this type of personality.
Now how does a rebel fit into the conclave reserved for the scum and dregs of society? He gets into the groove of fellow rebels too, but rebels of a different nature; they are those who are against proper conduct; they who violated the standards for peace and safety; they who stole, maimed those who gets into their way with the sole reason of gaining something. They have committed acts without cause or reason except to harm and impair. There is mischief in the process therefore. They comprise the attributes of felons, the fellows the real rebels would interact no end in the course of serving time.
Sooner however the real rebel would realize that his fellow travellers in prison are no different from his persuasion, although there is difference in faith and approaches. He would appreciate that he and his fellows are mere players of humanity, tasked to perform a specific order from which they should adhere. The real rebel may wish for a social change, in the same manner that a convicted thief or murderer would likewise wish for the same, except that their manner of projecting their conduct is a world apart.
In a few summers, the real rebel becomes de-radicalized by the prevailing climate in prison. He either would isolate himself, burying his thoughts through books and literature, trying to live in a world or simply retreat, defining and perhaps inventing some gods that would suit his contemplative moment. Even if his heart desires to radicalize his environment, the grinding routine, the gross familiarity, the boring environment, the tedious surroundings, the dreary expression on the faces of denizens do not inspire idealism. The prison climate is static. It is the same from the time a person is ushered in up to the time he witnesses some movements. Sometimes releases promote hope, at times, death is wished for as an alternative for optimism.
His day is so common, so rundown, so ordinary. Calendar is of no use in prison. A weekly planner is better reckoned than an almanac. Life is appreciated after sundown and it is re-enacted at dawn. In between, there seems to be no better hours to check. In a heavily guarded fence above 14 feet on each side, the only light from the sun that visits the community is made only at high noon. Any prison has no use for the rising sun neither for the western moon.
For the rebel in prison, a period of isolation is better than a stretch in a crowd. A rebel prisoner is categorized as high risk. He can influence anyone. He can easily blend and adjust. He can smoothly get into one’s concern and prescribe with efficiently how to deal with anything. But the rebel no matter how competent, how encouraging, how inspiring he projects would soon realize that he could not transcend a higher level of social or institutional change because rebels must tear down authority to do that. The rebel prisoner knows that prison cells, CCTV, perimeter, patrol and uniformed guards are symbols of authority that could not be broken down. Hence, his contemplative moments more pronounced as years go by.
Triviality becomes the order of the day in prison, everything turns to superficiality. As the adage goes, “It’s hard to face your problem if your problem is your face!”
The correctional process starts from the time the accused is convicted. Corrections presuppose the assumption of guilt. In corrective service, rehabilitation and safekeeping are its principal mandate. Under the regime, a prisoner must live under a school environment and in a quasi-disciplined nay contemplative manner, something akin to the institute of wizards in Harry Potter series.
Countless of materials, books even movies were inspired by prisons. There is something in prison that makes creativity soar to high heavens. There is also something in the prisoner that makes him extra ordinarily sharp, perhaps sharper than anyone in the free community. It could be fear or boredom, genius or criminal proclivity, or faith, or maybe the sense of hopelessness, whatever.
Masterpieces in work of art and literature could be found and could have been produced by prisoners themselves. Remember the novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel Cervantes? It was drafted and written in a dungeon (there was no prison cell yet during that time) while Cervantes was serving time. The novel was considered the best literary piece, greater than any of the works of Shakespeare. And the likes of such creativity was never accidental at all. It may however be incidental.
There were also literary pieces, biographical works, films depicting lives of prisoners. And whenever details of their lives are featured, all the elements of drama represent a spectacle in itself.
But what makes the story interesting is how the prisoner survives the daily grind of routine. How he manages to keep his mind away from thoughts of defeat notwithstanding the fact that his imprisonment is a direct consequence of loss. How he would fashion out from nowhere ideas which in the free community he dared ignored—like revisiting faith and reviewing his fate. He knew that being alone in a crowd is a stiff punishment worse than being alone. Life is not made to be stale in an artificial cage; life is never designed to be tamed at all.
Yet a prisoner must serve his time. This is the cost of living in a society of laws. In prison, he once again reenters a new world which is composed of rules on top of laws. It is like playing basketball for years on end without “time outs” or quarterly breaks. To complain is an introduction to breaking down. To play with rancor is to invite insanity.
Prisoners represent new specie invented by civilization. They are there expected to be obedient, compelled by courts, held by walls, restricted by technicalities. Their lives are animated by a barrage of mind-numbing routine. Familiarity is the order of the day in the prison community.
Here is one instance when denizens of correctional facilities wish for congestion and disorder, for disunity and chaos to find their humanity intact. These would also spell for them significant privileges and treats. Human rights are born not in the silent confines of a regularly maintained camp. It is the effect of conditions neglected almost criminally by the establishment.
In an uncanny situation where facilities remain as it were and where influx of offenders keep on mounting, it is not therefore bizarre to claim that imprisonment is an act considered as Man’s inhumanity to Man.
I have a number of visitors the past few weeks. They were mostly sisters of prisoners. And they had fire in their eyes as they set on the task working on the records and trying to push administration to consider the situation of their loved ones so that their respective brothers would be released.
Their tenacity in the cause of their brother’s case reminds me of my sister.
I could only appreciate and compel myself to do their bidding. After all, my sister would have been in this same situation had I been in the state of their brother too. They were very aggressive to the point of being overzealous.
If given the power, they could have melted the obstacles their brother is facing. I could have been liquefied with their looks and demeanor since I represent the system that holds a person.
Yes, my sister. She must have been watching me from heaven. She must have been in her usual matron style, arms on her hips, chin up, standing tall assessing a situation, eyes fix , lips pout. She is everywhere, beside me, in my memory, even at times when I am contemplating on doing something bad.
Oh yes. She was always there for me. She was mother incarnate. She was my buffer, my defender, my representative. She was my constant counsel.
I may be good or bad, but for her I would still her brother come what may. And as such, I must be protected, secured and shielded from the elements.
Without her around, I feel vulnerable. I feel the angst of nature. I could see myself as endangered and almost exposed. She was there to blanket me with confidence.
I could be careless and uncaring, I could be callous and even heartless but everywhere my sister would be there caring and affectionate, concerned about me, about my health, my security, my person.
My sister is in heaven alright, her spirit though is with me always, her smile fortunately is in my heart and her tenacity, like all sisters are, is always everywhere.
I could be strict, I could be mean, I could be very objective, cold and neutral in all matters presented to me in work. But when a sister of anyone would approach me, I could just be a willing listener, subjective and emotional and at times, moved towards a commitment. It is the sister in my heart that governs.
Where she is, wherever she might repose her concern, in every way she is, she knows I am always there also for her. Our love bonds us through eternal times. She is that figure that makes me just and concern for all times. My moral compass and light.