THOSE DAYS AT THE HELM OF IWAHIG PENAL COLONY
It was 1995. In Chinese Zodiac, it was the Year of the Pig, and that probably explains why during my time in Iwahig at the helm, I was almost roasted!
I have just completed my mission at Davao Penal Colony (to stabilize security and take charge of then threat that prisoner Manero’s men may lay a siege to spring their leader out). I was about to take my study leave to take the Bar exams but it was declined and instead I was reassigned to Iwahig Penal Colony. The problem there was a borderline case. Politicians wanted the penal administration in Iwahig to be transferred somewhere so that the resource-rich Iwahig Penal Colony will be open to civilians and add it as a virtual hen that lays the golden egg for the local government. I was tasked to be the penal colony’s vanguard and challenge if need be intruders particularly politicians.
And there I was, the youngest Superintendent of Iwahig Penal Colony (at 41), the same facility which several years back, the father of the late Speaker Ramon Mitra, once was the head of the prison facility. There was too much history in said penal establishment which was organized by the Americans during their regime in the early 20th century. The facility also had significant role during the Japanese invasion—a lot of brilliant personalities, future political leaders caught in the crossfires of the war, were incarcerated within its walls.
And I was then in the early mid 90s calling the shots. Indeed, there were pressures from local government and worst, the Superintendent which I was tasked to replace made belligerent efforts to keep his post. For a time, there was a quandary on who the prison officers will obey. I did not force myself and allowed the former head to manage the area. I merely reported on the status of the administration and for a time, went around the whole prison reservation—-on the whole 40,000 -hectare reservation—and took note of its awesome and resplendent space. It was after all, the biggest penal facility nationwide in terms of land size, ideally positioned and considered the last bastion of forestry in the country.
Central office sent a high official to resolve the impasse and thereafter, we had a simple turn over ceremonies. The officer then holding on the post eventually capitulated. Finally, I was officially designated to take charge of Iwahig Penal Colony. Prison officers pledged their support and offered to work doubly hard in the performance of their duties. At that time, escapes were predominant and violence was a daily occurrence. A few months before I took over, there were hostage situations and unmitigated riots. There was internal strife among prison personnel on one hand and among prisoners on the other hand. No wonder, local government found a strong argument for its relocation and was immensely interested in proposing for the transfer of the facility to another site.
I started outlining the profile of the facility, the magnitude and dimension of its land, the mountain ranges, the rivers and tributaries, the second growth forested spaces, the rain forest, the flora and fauna, mineral rich foundation of its highlands. There were geological findings that indicate the fact that the whole prison reservation was sitting atop a vein of lavish gold ore and precious mineral deposits. That probably explain why there was a rich concentration of silver and not far from the site, a hot spring water marshland when there was no volcanic fissure anywhere in the island.
Iwahig Penal Colony
Iwahig Penal Colony is a land lock area almost in the middle of Palawan Island. American battalion composed of engineers worked wonders in determining an ideal area for a penal establishment. They can explore and exploit precious metals using prison manpower and at the same time ship it out as booty for their mother country to repost and enjoy. War broke out however and the insidious plan flew out into forgotten land. The Japs took over and transformed Iwahig into an ordinary concentration camp devoted principally for the incarceration of POWs and what in their estimation were political traitors.
Years later, Iwahig would submit to the world of correctional administration a method which would be considered as advancement in the science of penology—the open institutions approach. The Japs having recovered from war was quick to pick up the development and gave their penal system the same approach which to date has been considered by UN as a template for a model correctional administration.
Meanwhile, the agency, Bureau of Corrections, having been led by political appointees whose knowledge of penal science have as yet to sink into their policy orientation, merely sustained token administrative practices which border on observation. Hence, Iwahig, much like other penal establishments, were at times open and most of the time closed in terms of prison security and rehab formulations.
Fulfilling a Mandate
My administration was at the crossroads at that time. While then prison administration wanted a strict security plan with less rehab programs to be the anchor of management, I chose the reverse. I worked towards the formulation of rehab programs first and secondarily the security component. I allowed the reclassification of prisoners from maximum to medium then to minimum security category to expose them to healthy agricultural practices instead of consigning prisoners into the idleness of security lock ups.
The approach worked well. Rice fields expanded. Agro production achieved higher yields. Violence was never heard of. Inmates became creative in their artistic and productive pursuits. Few administrative cases by officers and there was almost a dint of prison viciousness. Officers had their own respective revenue generating activities on top of their regular functional role in the organization. Tourists began to gain an influx even threatening the traditional Puerto Princesa spots in favor of iwahig sojourn.
And then there is Gold!
On my sixth month, the chief of the geological division of the Bureau of Mines came for a visit and asked for permission so that they could fly-by the mountainous area of Iwahig, which in my estimation is almost 70% of the entire prison reservation. I asked if I could join and on a week-end, in a borrowed chopper from Wescom, we were hovering above the penal colony.
The chief geologist was very happy to share his observation. He said that noticeably there are areas on the side of the mountain near the top that vegetation was poor while in other parts, it is almost a jungle. That explains the presence of minerals under those fledging shrubbery. Minerals deflect the heat and therefore warp the roots of plants and trees rendering the area almost uninhabitable to hardy greeneries. In short, according to the expert, minerals, a vein of gold ore it is believed, runs along the geologic terrane of the highlands. My hunch was correct from the start.
Iwahig folks had a name for their major mountain range depending on how it looked from a distance. There is “Mt. Salakot” because it resembled a local headgear. There is also “Susong Dalaga” because its contour looks like those of shapely female boobs. The elevated range is determined according to its proximity to those two mountainous spots.
The mountain lair is home to exotic biodiversity of wild life, most of which are still uncatalogued. It promotes an ecosystem which simulated ancient, even Jurassic condition. The prison on its periphery served as vanguard to its pristine state. And beneath this façade is a mind-boggling wealth.
It was an “OMG” revelation which I was excited to share to my superiors. It was never ordinary to offer a game-changer more so if it would greatly benefit the country.
On sharing the Good News
I immediately informed the circle of officers near the prison leadership’s ear so that they could whisper my findings but instead of reckoning my information, there was a mad grab by these people to replace me. I suspected that the man at the top never heard my research. I stayed for a while waiting for the response of the leadership but there was none.
I have completed my book on the Land Use Study of Iwahig but I did not include the chapter which contains my findings based on the scientific study of a mining expedition led by the government’s chief geologist. I had it reserved for future publication.
A few weeks after in my 10-month term, I received an order for my re-assignment to San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm in Zamboanga. My successors subsequently were limited in the pursuit of disciplinary and security concerns in governing Iwahig.
As it were, Iwahig land has been downsized with issuances of proclamations left and right. The area has been reduced markedly and most of its poetic sceneries transformed into fledging habitats of informal dwellers.
Note that Iwahig holds the key on the self-sufficiency of prison administration if only properly supervised., The food requirements for its entire prison community will be sustained and perhaps, if ravenousness and greed were not a quality of people at the top, it could also be a major source of revenue that could uplift the quality of life of the Filipinos.
That is right. Not everything in prison is worth hating. It has something that could even save a country from bankruptcy.