Monthly Archives: November 2013
When I took a post grad course at the National Defense College of the Philippines in the late 70s, its president, Gen. Jose G. Syjuco would bark at us, his chosen students, an expression “You cannot have your cake and eat it too!” What he meant was that we cannot ask for anything if we have it already. Simply put, that we should not look for that food anymore if we have consumed it already. In other words, he was telling us not to be silly.
In prison administration, the general impression is the same. Some people expect that inmates should behave and yet they are literally lumped in a condition that defies any disciplinary principles. It is as if prohibiting a person to perspire in a window less room with barely a whiff of fresh air passing through at a humid afternoon. It is like goading a person to pray silently in the middle of the marketplace.
Prison climate is supposed to be subdued, peaceful and passive. And rightly so, if the condition is standard and administration fulfills the requirement for humane application of rules, programs and activities. Under this setting, rehabilitation is internalized within the purview of contemplation, penance and discipline. Security is merely an appendage of management and a simple accessory in the overall mandate of corrections. That is approaching what is ideal.
Now let us revisit what is real. Let us look closely at what is obtaining in an ordinary corrective facility. The climate it can be said is tension filled and almost explosive. Congestion or overcrowding is the order of the day. And since, the ratio of staff and inmate is not ideal, manpower management is loose. Control is relegated among elder inmates or those who have stayed longer. Contemplation is lost in disorder, penance is replaced by hatred and discipline nowhere exercised at all. Security becomes the principal muscle to herd inmates to the detriment of rehabilitation programs.
I was called to tame an environment considered the most dangerous sector of society—the National Penitentiary. It is also pejoratively called home of pure predators. It is where the judiciary would send its decided convictions, the life termers, those who must serve several life times over, the derisively termed drug lords, gambling lords, kidnapping specialists, terrorists, radicals, what have you. They are all there packed and more. An individual among the throng constitute a threat, a social if not a national risk all by itself.
And since historically, what would bring down leadership was a single mayhem, say an exploding grenade in some corners of the prison camp, my first gut instinct was go for peace. To grab the proverbial horn and tail of the tiger, if that is humanly possible at all. In other words, given the task of holding on control, I must exude with respectable projection not necessarily to intimidate the denizens of the maximum security wing but to exude with the respectable dignity of an authority who knows fairness by heart. Respect is the only language understood everywhere specially so in the underworld.
And so there I was huddling in the middle of a select group of elders in the prison community. These are the guys who are also respected, deferred, esteemed by the general population. They are not only listened to as a matter of course, they are listened to intently. Their word is as prized as prison rules and their expression as significant as a sacred prayer. Their sentiment is carried all throughout the psyche of the prison population. We agreed to believe in each other. And while there was no black and white, no signatures that bound our understanding of our agreement to keep peace, we embraced the idea of preserving communal concord whatever is the cost. From my end, peace is priceless that I am willing to exchange it with any career ending decision.
I was subsequently tested. The prison community asked for some privileges, I gave more. They want understanding, I gave some more. While they try to justify convenience, I translated it into a program. I even treated their case folders as a sacred document. All because of peace.
And then a word from the top as if saying “stop playing footsie with criminals!” Well, they can call it that way. I was even ready to recommend that the entire prison camp be rigged with bombs so that it can be blown into smithereens if that is what they wished and if that is what the Constitution adheres to. But of course I know the law and I am no fool.
Everyone, starting from the top, wants peace. But it should be earned. It is never won, it is negotiated. One must work for it. For those who think that peace is plain lip service and that it is born out of fear, it is like having their cake and eating it too.
In the olden times, Saturn was considered one of the most active divinities associated with agriculture and a cult was even founded ascribing to him as a guardian god. His influence led to the principles of civilization thereby shedding older, wild and barbarian customs.
Later as Greek mythology was Romanized, Saturn became known as Cronus (the term “chronology” came from this). And subsequently, he took the role of the god of time. Further on, immediately after the Middle Ages, he was associated with a gloomy character. Eventually, a planet known as the most arid and slowest was named after him. Thereupon, he came to personify old age, poverty and death. In the astrological imagination, Saturn was associated with unfavorable situations.
I do not wish, although to a certain extent, I could see Saturn criss-crossed on my palm. I began to contemplate.
Once upon a time, I was a bubbly youth, almost spoiled by the mother although resources never allowed it. My father was the sole breadwinner and it was his hand that literally guided every one of us. It was his strength that we depended on much for our struggle. While my father worked hard, a bureaucrat by day and an academician at night (much like philosophers Emanuel Kant and Francis Bacon before) I never had a chance to pretend to be middle class juvenile although all my friends in the neighborhood swore that they were a cut above the rest of the struggling proletarian population.
My youth days were memorable because I was realistically grounded, knowing where I was, compared with my peers who lived and thought based on their delusions. Vices made them more hooked on their beliefs. In my case, I coasted along on what was obtaining in the here and now.
Years followed and I have witnessed how age caught up with my parents. From an active almost athletic schedule my parents pursued up until sickness would slow them down. From a smooth silky complexion my elders would project up until that day when I could feel the wrinkles envelop their facial expression, including the limb which they would use in coddling me during my toddler years.
I have had my share of youthful vibrancy until I would likewise reached that stage when I could also feel and see on the mirror the wrinkles which time battered on my body. At almost a decade past the golden year, I could see my strength reduced almost to a half. I could barely walk a mile while before I could play an endless game of basketball from dusk to dawn. I could stay awake all night driving thousands of kilometers and appreciate every locality I would pass through without fatigue and exhaustion. Now a trip to the nearby marketplace is a lethargic proposition already.
While it can be said that 60 is the new 40, while preservation of youthful looks may be encouraged through various means, vitamins, lifestyle and food, unlike where there was a dearth of these in the past, what remains inside the body is almost the same with that of the ancestors. The equalizer remains with the environment. Miracle tablets cannot over rule the influx of stress which at present brings forth multitude of irreversible ailments from viral diseases to the big C. Science just could not cope up with the speed of maladies encroaching all over the world.
And it has tremendous effect not only the looks department but also on the life span of the human beings. Eternal youth and immortality could no longer be captured except in fictional form like novels and movies. Religious philosophies and spiritual rites on longevity of life would fail in the face of environmental challenges.
Ageing says modern science is not natural but a form of disease. Man, says the new scientific doctrine, is never designed to wither unlike other creatures on the planet. Man can live up to an infinite time until through negligence he forgets to stay attune with his natural universe. Man’s mind indeed is his passport to eternity.
And on top of this, the password is moderation.
Former Senator (and Presidential father) Ninoy Aquino when he was imprisoned in a military stockade once remarked, “Eating in gold utensils while incarcerated does not mitigate any pain.” Well, something to that effect. Imprisonment, as it were, is indeed an agonizing episode in a person’s life. And worst, the condition of any custodial facility does not even inspire human rights.
There are incidents however that remarkably dot and create some kind of respite to the drab and monotonous condition of prison life. These are instances when celebrity convicts are admitted into the prison community to serve time. They are a whiff, a breath of fresh air to the prison population. They are the apple in the eyes of gangs, the potential economic saviors among the destitute sector of the incarcerated enclave, the favorite consultants of everyone, whether prisoners or prison officers alike.
They exude a different aura from the standpoint of the prison community; they are a cut above the rest. Their smile seem to be profound; their demeanor exacting and cautious. They are more given to contemplation than exuberance. They are less criminal from the stereotype. They are just simply aloof.
Fellow prisoners flock to them like insects to a fruit. They merit respect and they reciprocate with equal intensity. They have the resources to extend assistance directly to a subservient fellow or indirectly to his family outside. Those inmates around the celebrity would shower their principal with a host of considerations—from massage, to doing laundry, from cooking to securing. The celebrity is treated like nobility and inmates are willing subjects. From the standpoint of the prison community, the celebrity is a hard act to follow but easier to please.
Hence a sector they are, a slim and dim a percentage, imperceptible but quite engrossing. They are the privileged, the silent movers, the thinkers and advisers, magnificently ensconced and highly esteemed. Their friendship is prized. They in turn are accorded with deference by the prison community as a whole, by a fan base of believers. They are treated like very importantly. They are from the ground a recipient of VIP treatment.
Only security feedback would reach administration. That there is an institutional divide comprising of those not treated equally is beyond the pale of analysis. All of the inmates are in the same space, restricted by walls, lumped in a dormitory and compelled to serve time. All are known by their prison numbers and as a necessary consideration, they are all statistic. Nowhere is there a special number, neither there is a special consideration for computing time serve according to rank. Everything revolves around a standard, a customary law known as prison rule and no one is expected to toe the line. Institutionally, there can never be any VIP treatment at all.
But for all intents and purposes, what is glaring in the daily scheme of things in prison is maltreatment. The dormitories, packed exceeding are in a state of building fatigue. It could collapse after a brief tremor. Ventilation could no longer be obtained because of overcrowding. Medical services could barely be delivered, hampered as it were by lack of equipment notwithstanding competent crew of physicians on the roster. These and more. Result on the physique of the inmate is telling. Signs of torture even if not physically abused are expressed in their state of health. And in some respects if one hears that there is special treatment by inmates on a few of their deferred companions conducted, it is as if the correctional system has committed a grievous fault.
The public, the general population, the free community still adhere to the belief that prison should always be a place where maltreatment must be the order of the day.
There was this incident which unsettled me no end. A policeman came up to ask for help regarding his household helper. He was looking for this woman he entrusted his child with as baby sitter. I presumed at that time the law enforcer knew all along that his helper is related to a prisoner hence, when his helper was nowhere, he already knew where to go—in a prison camp. But what made his problem complicated was not the absence of his helper but a worrisome situation that the loss came when his child was also nowhere. It was blood curdling at most.
What the lawman’s hunch turned into an investigative find. His prey, the house helper, was indeed inside the prison camp visiting an inmate believed to be her husband and with her was a toddler, his child!
Prison officers requested by the law enforcer for assistance quickly moved to verify the information. Rightly so, the househelper and child were on record on a visitation privilege. The prison patrol went to the site and accosted the woman and child to the office. There were no commotion, no drama. The procedure was conducted in a low key. The lawman was relaxed in the security office. There was no hysterics when the lawman saw his child; there was even no trace of anger when the lawman saw the househelper. It was, as if, the period was just an ordinary market day. The security officers, sensitive and trained witness this kind of situation, were texting each other messages to telegraph positioning in case emotional fireworks would be displayed on that day. Luckily, at least for those in the office, there was nothing of that sort. The lawman rose up from a homey sitting position, thanked the officers, picked up his kid and accosted the helper into his vehicle.
The officers huddled in a corner after the incident. Versions were offered. The officer who fetched the house helper volunteered to add a brief interview he conducted. Accordingly, the house helper was heavy with her child by her inmate husband when she left for the province. But here comes conjecture. She may have suffered a miscarriage but there were information that she successfully gave birth but penury drove her to sell her child in her hometown.
She went back to Manila thereafter and sought employment. In a brief period, she was employed as helper in the household of a lawman. Here, another speculation was given: one is that, the helper did not sell her child but brought the infant to Manila were a lawman agreed to adopt the baby. Another view was that, the helper was contracted by lawman as babysitter for the family’s baby.
What complicated further the situation was that the househelper brought with her the child in her regular visitation course in prison and introduced to her inmate husband that the one year old kid was theirs. There was blissful period between visiting helper and her inmate husband until one day it would be disturbed by a security call.
The child—believed by the inmate husband as his—would one day be the center of controversy when the real father, or so it seems, would appear before the prison gates to knock at reality.
What a case. We never knew where to end. The beginning of the case has no definite start in the first place.
“Kubol” is a term which has entered the lexicon of criminal justice administration through tolerated practices in the infrastructure complexion of corrective administration. It is a cubicle, hence the term “kubol” contrived by prisoners assigned in a dormitory type facility. Dorms are facilities designed to accommodate a number of prisoners and it is one stretch of a facility with two rows of bed bunks, usually double decker. If inmates have prolonged period to serve in the facility, the dormitory type, usually a carry-over of the barracks used by military and trainees, no longer could serve a positive purpose. Aside from the fact that in prolonged incarceration, privacy sets in.
There is nothing wrong in communal living as long as the period is calibrated to mean for a specific short period, say, on semestral basis. But if it extends further, then abuses are formed, violation of privacy and most of the time, there is gross awareness to the point of contempt that pervades. There will come a time, and this is usually after a few summers, when viciousness and passion would ran high and the threshold for restraint snaps into a murderous rage. Suddenly, the prison community becomes a witness to blood bath and correctional administrators would find themselves groping in the dark.
When privacy is intruded and infringed as when a person is inured to period of gross familiarity there is immediate hostility created and what will ensue would be a series of character wracking attitude like predilection to suspicion, distrust and misgiving. This further translates into collective cynicism, the exact opposite of that climate which corrections fosters on the community. The prison community would just explode into a riotous series of mayhem and turmoil.
Time came when liberality in prison administration dawned. It was also a time when the population would soar to an unmanageable level. Supervision has become terribly difficult. While the population doubled and tripled, the number of prison personnel never took off to reach an effective ratio. It was at this juncture, when prisoners decided to subdivide their dormitories into cubicle. Thus, the “kubol” was born.
Privacy assured, the kubol became an emblem of solitude, a space for contemplation, a guarded place where an inmate or a handful of inmates can retreat into silence. Kubol emplaced, violence was subdued, normalcy restored and sanity suddenly took over. In a community where the average period of one’s stint is 15 years, privacy is the most significant consideration he gets to enjoy and his kubol the most precious temple he is proud to possess.
But there are complaints aired. Kubols in the public perception is also a template for luxury, an expression of excess and an unjust arrangement which moneyed inmates could partake. It has become virtually an issue that bespeaks of ineptitude in prison management, an irregularity in allowing a few to transcend above the usual treatment accorded everyone. It has been translated into a topic, a central dispute, if you may, which prison administrators must squarely answer.
In reality, the kubol is just an ordinary construction arrangement, a mere contraption, which inmates took it upon themselves since the State has no funds to rebuild prison structure into cell blocks. It is the inmates themselves who out of personal security and welfare, that which the State through its correctional system must sustain, would initiate for their own ends. That they are secured equates to the realization of correctional mandate on safekeeping of prisoners.
As time went by, however, some inmates would spend personal resources to improve, at times would extend to the tune of abuse. These can be remedied however by an administrative act of transferring those who out of mishandling the area assignment would ignore common institutional posturing. On the whole, the kubol is just a simple approach to translate unsympathetic dormitory barracks into livable cells or makeshift studios. It is just plain recognition and understanding of the incarcerated humanity on a personal level.
And why not? As soon as a prison officer is posted, he begins to witness the withering process of humanity. A law graduate, newly minted from an exclusive school, once confessed that inmates he interviewed had winnable cases. That it pained him no end to know that he was in the sea of humanity where guilt is concentrated in only a few. Having said this, I realized that I was right all along to work in the prison service. To interact in an environment which is extremely inverse of idealism, is an immersion worthy of experience. And this is not just for the heck of dipping; it is made up of a career.
There is not much to earn but so much to learn. There is not much to gain but so much to bargain for. Life in prison is cheap, cheapened further by incidents which promote sadness and frustration. Congestion is everywhere, gross familiarization and grinding routine, all of which intends not only to break the mind but to mangle the heart. And yet one finds that in that midst an inmate would rise up, smiling in resignation and would declare that he has been in prison, guilt somewhere, for more than a decade. And worst, he can identify a score of them in a similar situation. Guilt in a sea of innocence or as what the public would see as innocence in the ocean of guilt.
Prison work begins with an understanding of what should be done. While discipline is foremost, it cannot be obtained because of deficiency. Facilities are wanting. Equipment is fledging. The prison environment does not inspire confidence; it is never controlled by officers tasked to impose it. Officers are always subject to intrigues and vulnerable to indifference. For them, it is a matter of luck. A day is always dedicated to the miracle of peace. Stability is elusive, trouble most likely to prevail yet it must not transcend the threshold of scandal.
Anything that spells anxiety, anything that boils in misunderstanding would surely explode into a fracas. In a community where membership in a group, or call it a gang, is everything protection, it is also an invitation for a collective act designed to fulfill violence. As it has been said that if you want peace, you must gear for war. In a community detested by public, condemned by law, buried to be forgotten in a community believed to be composed of misfits, prison is the last island anyone would wish to be stranded. Yet thousands are marooned in this place, thousands of frustrations keep on multiplying as anguish of victims kept vigil so that the place would dissolve and disintegrate from the face of humanity.
This is also a work place. In the midst, one finds a career carved out of patience and understanding. This is no universe for the ill-tempered although for a time it became a breeding ground for cruelty and malice. It is to a certain extent a home where anyone moving around is a friend, a family. It is sanctuary, it is dwelling, it is a refuge for those who wish a second chance. It is also an area where authority is to be exercised so that fairness, notwithstanding all challenges resulting in displeasure, may be applied properly. The workplace may be misleading since its serenity meant a gathering of storm but it is household for a sector of mankind determined not only to keep skin and bones together but maintain the mind and spirit in one piece.
Prison service is sacrifice if these are thoughts that run through. It is a form of sacrifice to make a person strong, resilient and irrepressible. It is a challenging proposition to retain sanity in a lawfully created abnormal situation. But it is worthy of consideration.