English jurist William Blackstone in his seminal work, Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in 1760 expressed, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” That of course has been forgotten already although it made sense. One innocent person serving time in prison is one too many. It is a clarion call to our judicial system. It is also the basis, the profound reference in a situation where the State must rethink first before it is to impose the supreme penalty of death.
There are cases of acquittal yearly in the penal system. I know. I have been in the prison service for almost 40 years, including weekends. Actually, I lost count already. For me, work in the penal establishment is no longer devoted to facilitating the rehabilitation of the guilty but rather working for the welfare of the innocent in their midst, wherever they are. I cannot presume guilt, like some criminal justice agencies, upon a person even if the courts have made its decree. I can only presume that there are still innocent whose fault is penury, or failure to sustain a costly litigation. And there are hundreds of accused languishing in congested facilities because of poor defense preparation. In the medical field, you do not get a good doctor, you die.
That is the reality of being, a fact of life as a matter of course. You can escape taxes for a while but never poverty. You can even evade accidents but accusations, if you have nothing, you are exposed to the elements.
This is not a sad commentary on the state of affairs. It is a situation where everyone is enjoined to be at the safe side, whatever that means. To be safe could mean subservience, enslavement, unconditional surrender, submission or plain capitulation. Should there be exploitation, the rule is compliance. In a world where power resides in specific places, one must never transgress anything at all. It is fatal at the most. Anything that spells as ordinance must be adhered, anything that takes the shape of a law must be reckoned. Freedom is restricted only for those with means to understand it.
I have seen up close the face of an innocent man, almost ruined beyond recognition. I am a prison officer who signs releases. And there are instances when I have to hold my breath reading through a judgment declaring innocence and requiring my command to release a prisoner for acquittal. Years of servitude have zapped the man’s figure. Only a silhouette of a human being could be recognized from a distance. How he would be in the mainstream of free society, less those years he was treated as convict, would have permanently damaged anything that makes him a sensible person. Yet he still cherish the moment of truth notwithstanding the fact that his future has been mutilated.
The words of Blackstone would be revisited in my mind. I have dealt severely those who were negligent and remiss in the duties of prison personnel in guarding their ward. I was even unforgiving in resolving; sometimes recommending the highest form of disciplinary sanction against those on whose responsibilities an escape would occur. Careers were broken when escape happens. But when there is acquittal, nothing follows.
Dr. Raymund Narag was just fortunate. This according to his testimony. He was charged with a murder case in 1992, an incident that brought to the fore issues on fraternity violence and he was one among several young men —all members of the UP Scintilla Juris Fraternity—who were immediately clamped in jail for the alleged felony.
Seven years later, (that is right, 7 years) the court handed down a decision clearing Narag of the offense while his co-accused bore the burden of serving time for the crime committed. After the decision was promulgated, all his accused were subsequently transferred from Quezon City jail to the National Penitentiary to serve time.
Raymund came back to his Alma Mater (UP Diliman) to receive honors and diploma as scholar and cum laude at the UP NCPAG where he completed his Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration.
Thereafter, he continued his quest for more academic degrees and went to US to further pursue graduate studies. He was admitted as a instructor in Michigan University where he also earned his Masteral and Doctorate in the School of Criminal Justice and lately, moved and became a member of the faculty at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He kept his linkage with Philippine learning institutions and occasionally would return to the country to pursue consultancy work.
Last July 11, 2013 on invitation of the Bureau of Corrections, as sponsored by the Asian Development Bank, he was tapped as resource speaker on the formulation of an ideal prison facility. For him, it was an ironic exposure.
Sometime ago, he was a detainee in congested Quezon city jail for seven years. He would have been inside the Penitentiary with his fellow frat brothers had he not been acquitted. In front of prison officers, he laid down one principle after another on how to design and administer a penal institution. He knows whereof he speaks. He was for sometime a denizen and now as expert after continuing with postgraduate research on life behind bars.
During his lecture, he remarked that those of his co-accused who were sentenced to serve time in the Penitentiary are, like him, also innocent of the charges. He said in all those times he visited them, he advised that “you came in clean, you must go out clean also.” That, according to him, is the mark of innocence.
For him, criminal justice in the country, without even mentioning it though, is paradoxical. And they are not alone. For quite sometime, regular releases in penal establishments include cases of acquittal too after a lengthy period of incarceration. Thespian Berting Labra, after 16 years in Death Row was released after the Supreme Court decided on his innocence. Hubert Webb is another. After 19 years, he was released after the High Court was not convinced on his guilt. And more. Countless inmates who have not appealed also are serving time for no reason at all!
There are administrative remedies. Those incarcerated and were acquitted are qualified to seek redress and compensation from the Department of Justice under the victimology (victim assistance) program. The Commission on Human Rights also is championing through the courts compensatory reliefs by way of damages. But is it worth? A day in prison is a lifetime scar. It is an unthinkable and humiliating experience. It directly assaults the soul. However, one can only understand this within the purview of fate.
Innocents in prison? It is like a healthy person confined in the hospital, bombarded with prescription drugs, tested with numerous injectables, fed with salt less meals, checked and monitored almost every hour, garbed in dextrose and due for surgical transplant.