Once upon a period in the country’s penal history, the agency involved in the safekeeping of offenders, the Bureau of Prisons then (now Bureau of Corrections) belonged to the Department of Instructions and Commerce. Prisoners were seen as students and workers tasked to perform largely labor concerns. As a matter of fact, they were even treated as pioneering farm contingents as when they were literally assigned to explore jungles which later would evolve into penal colonies. Iwahig Penal Colony, Davao Penal Colony, San Ramon Penal Colony were starting points. Prisoners were sent to these areas as farm hands to tame the wild so to speak. And from whatever produce they may be able to explore and exploit, it became part of the budding prison industrial commerce. That was in the early stages of penal colony administration.
Years later, following the development of American judicial system, the Bureau of Prisons was realigned under the supervisory realm of the Department of Justice. From then up to the present, the organizational membership would remain as it was. For quite a time, it was American jurisprudence that dictated a number of institutional practices, which up to the present the prison system is adhering to. Little legislative concerns were submitted except during times when disturbances and riots would emanate from the throes of complaints by the incarcerated humanity. The Laurel Report on prison report became a significant document that forced government to review the conditions obtaining in all prison establishments. And while it virtually pushed correctional concerns at the forefront of legislative awareness, the enthusiasm faded as soon as the last victim of riots was buried.
Then came a series of advocacies focusing on human rights and religious formation activities in prison. These encouragements influenced the climate obtaining in penal facilities and reduced the tension. It also reinforced the introduction of programs that later would become the centerpiece of rehabilitation. It would likewise be the central consideration in every program intended to promote the welfare of the prison community.
While riots virtually waned in NBP, trouble erupted almost simultaneously on most penal colonies. Prison officers in Iwahig, Davao and Zamboanga were assaulted. Gangs in these facilities were likewise viciously attacking each other. Violence and mayhem cascaded from Muntinlupa to various penal establishments in the country. This would be the temper of penal colonies until it would subdue as time goes by.
In the late 70s when death penalty was virtually bannered by the military establishment, the penal system was silenced into a level of contemplation. The prison agency at that time has been acknowledged as a complete package. It has almost everything in its arsenal except for air power. It has a shipping line (MV Bupri), it has vast tracts of lands in Palawan, Mindoro, Mindanao, etc, it has a vast supply of manpower, it has armed personnel, its establishments posted in all critical regions of the country in strategic locations. It is almost a total force to reckon with. During this period, government recognized its organized potential; hence it reorganized prisons but neglected updating its rules. It remained stagnant and bereft of significance in the scale of criminal justice administration. It would remain the same for years to come.
Prison leaders would be appointed one after another on the basis of political discretion. Every individual administration would attempt to start policy as if the agency had a dark past. Every appointed leader would presume that changes were made and their presence incumbent on the basis that their predecessors were failures from the start. Every administrative expression of those given the chance to score correctional victory would only do so on a personal level and would never create any historical consideration. There was no sense of administrative continuity from one appointed leader to another. Every representation was a virtual double of its political patron. Every change in prison administration would be marked with a seal of innocence and blind commitment.
For the last several decades, the correctional administration would partake of measures upon measures even if there were no laws that would govern all attempts at updating practices until the time came when Legislature finally broke its silence. It drafted and finally sent a law for approval the prepositioning of the agency—Bureau of Corrections—on the back burner of criminal justice administration. Republic Act 10575 (The Bureau of Corrections Act of 2013) was eventually approved by the President and another correctional milestone, Republic Act 10592 (The Law on Good Conduct Time Allowance and other Grants for the reduction of Penalty) was subsequently passed.
These two recent legislative measures literally brought the Bureau of Corrections back on the plane of relevance in the entire criminal justice system. It virtually conferred awareness on the plight and condition of the incarcerated humanity. If only because of this concern, the country’s penal administration finally achieved a significant and effective role in the proper treatment of those under custody of law.
I am due to retire after almost 38 years in the prison service. I have seen and experienced what corrections meant to the criminal justice administration during those times. I have struggled to find my role in the complex and confusing dynamics of correctional directions. And finally, on my way out, two laws would stand out to reform the entire corrective system. It was indeed a fitting occasion to witness the dawn of changes. I may not be an active part of the transformation this time but I know fairly well that there will be positive shift of corrections with emphasis on the welfare of those serving time in the regime of incarceration, an advocacy which I devoted my professional calling for years.
There are those charged in court but has never been arrested yet nor placed under custody of law. We have former General Jovito Palparan, former Palawan Governor Joel Reyes and his brother, former Coron Mayor Mario Reyes, former Dinagat Island Rep Ruben Ecleo Jr. and Globe Asiatique developer Delfin Lee. Before them, we have former Senator Ping Lacson who never allowed himself arrested and detained hiding from law until he was cleared by the courts. There were familiar names that were likewise charged and are now in detention, like Napoles, Arroyo, Ampatuan. While those at large are nowhere in sight, and others who merely reappeared at will after ignoring warrants, there are persons who are literally in custody but never subjected to the rigors of the usual detention experience a common detainee would usually undergo. Not that these “influential” people ought to suffer congestion and related coercive expression of custodial officers but the leniency of space and related comforts they get should be the template ordinary detainees must also apply.
The Law must apply to all or it should never be applied at all. If a person is to be detained in a special camp strictly for security consideration, let it be on the basis of risk assessment. An ideologue or rebel for instance should never be mixed with those charged or convicted with common crimes. Hence, a specific facility must be determined for this category. Former MNLF Chair Nur Misuari, former President Joseph Estrada, Senator Jinggoy Estrada occupied the Sta. Rosa detention center and it is understandable. But for Janet Napoles who was charged for illegal detention to be confined separately in a facility for ideologues is incomprehensible. It insults intelligence. It adds salt to an injured criminal justice formulation. It baffles the principled mind.
Not that Janet ought to stay elsewhere and beat the lights out of her comfort but those detainees in sweat shop facilities must also be provided the same level of comfortable condition. After all, the constitutional presumption of innocence is still there. They are all innocents technically speaking and as yet to be judicially declared as guilty. And even assuming that guilt has been the verdict, the same humane treatment should also be applied. Remember that a person is segregated through incarceration as punishment but not to serve time under a regime of punishment.
Fair treatment for those under the criminal justice administration must be a consideration everyone must be able to reach, must be able to obtain, must be affordable to everyone. Fair treatment does not imply leniency in the pejorative sense but for humane consideration. If the system cannot duly exercise and apply this dictum, then we can just admit our failing and start ignoring international fora and turn a deaf ear on the requirements for and in the observance of the Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Persons Under Custody of Law. At least we are honest in our declaration and more so, there is virtue in honesty.
The problem with criminal justice practitioners is that they do not exactly know the terrain of their territory. They are simply blind at the weakness where there should be strength. They presume that mere declaration is enough to outwit history. They understand their role can easily be forgotten on the basis of the people’s short term memory loss.
That of course is not the true essence of criminal justice administration. There is still a need to appreciate what that simple term fairness is all about for those who care. But then, I oftentimes would hear just that: Who cares!
36 years ago today, I was formally employed in the Bureau of Prisons (now Bureau of Corrections). I was a fledgling 23 year old bachelor, fresh from a stint in a private company (Mead Johnson Philippines) and just a couple of summers out from a graduate study at the University of Philippines, where I was for a time an instructor. I majored in Psychology at Letran College. My entry position in the government agency was as a Guidance Psychologist. I will never forget this day because on the logbook, after signing my name, the day was 7-7-77. For Filipinos fixated with numerical superstition, 7 represent a lucky streak, as in a card game “Lucky 7” and some Biblical connotations on said figure.
Hence, I got into an agency in a very auspicious period. And what a day indeed. On my first day at the agency’s Reception and Diagnostic Center, I was immediately greeted with a bang, literally. As soon as I entered the perimeter gate, armed custodial personnel were already in position with drawn firearms. On the other side of the barricade were bolo-yielding inmates. There was an on-going riot and while dodging through into my office, I noticed around three inmates splayed on the ground each with a makeshift arrow buried in their torso and head, dead as a doornail. My knees were shaking not because of the fatalities but because the spilled blood may stain my brand new clothing. And my mother might scold me for being careless!
As if the number 7 would rule my career, I took note of every incident where said figure ruled my employment schedule. When I was summoned for orientation at the training school, we were 7. On my 7th month at RDC, I was designated as a Section Chief. Thereupon, I was promoted as Chief of RDC and stayed as head of division for 7 years (including stint as OIC). Then, I had an enriching involvement in various conferences and major seminars totaling 7—a credential compilation which qualified me to be promoted to the highest ranking post as Penal Superintendent IV at the age of 34.
Former President Marcos had the same numerical fixation with said number too. So is, an infamous convicted politician (Mayor Antonio Sanchez). Both would be engrossed in their forays with regards number 7. It would figure out prominently in every official and unofficial act of both. For Marcos and Sanchez, 7 was a lucky charm. Encountering the worst however, the same figure would manifest in the most sordid way. Marcos was driven out by 7 of his loyal peers headed by Enrile and Ramos. Sanchez on the other hand would serve time for committing murder on 7 counts.
I don’t know if the same number would also manifest in the low points of my career. I am very careful not to indulge in it for fear that it might also affect my universe. Nonetheless, I stayed close to my notes trying to document every facet of my routine. And indeed, 7 seem to be present in my sphere. I have copyrighted 7 books for publication already. I would enjoy and preoccupy my time with 7 hobbies (sculpture, music, literature, radio broadcasting, painting, poetry and martial arts). I completed and received 7 academic degrees. And to date, I have already taken almost 7 significant top positions in my agency.
On the whole however, with number 7 or whatever, the prison service would always be a part of my being, a component of my personal whim, a significant segment in my quest to contribute something for the betterment of a sector in our humanity.
And I intend to continue with my subjective crusade up to the age of 77 onwards to 107 up to 177 if I still look like someone by then worthy to be reckoned.
The Bureau of Prisons was created under the Reorganization Act of 1905 as an agency under the Department of Commerce and Police. The agency eventually was placed under the supervision of the Department of Justice. The Bureau of Prisons was changed into the Bureau of Corrections with the issuance of Proclamation No. 495 and through a provision in the Administrative Code of 1987.
The oldest penal facility , founded in 1832, is situated in Zamboanga City, the San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm. It has gained a historical landmark as the first penal facility in the country. It was however destroyed during the Spanish-American war in 1888. It was eventually revived under the Reorganization Act of 1905 and placed under the Bureau of Prisons to receive convicted prisoners in Mindanao. (Note: In Australia, the oldest penal facility is situated in Darwin Islands and the Australian government has preserved not only the integrity of the facility but its historical significance as well. ) In the Philippines, the oldest penal facility is integrated into the Southern Philippine Eco Zone, and planned to be transformed into a docking site for freight cargoes. The San Ramon prison is expected to be transferred to Bongiao, a mountainous area, 8 hours of dirt road from the city and believed to be under MILF territory.
Davao Penal Colony was established on January 21, 1932 with the issuance of a Presidential Proclamation 414. During World War II the entire facility was closed and transferred to Iwahig Penal Colony. It became the biggest Japanese Imperial Army garrison not only in the Philippines but also in all occupied territories of Japan in Southeast Asia during World War II. Hundreds of American prisoners of war perished in the jungles of Dapecol. Here is also the site where the bestselling book “Escape in Davao” by John Luckaks described the greatest escape of American servicemen serving time in the penal establishment. To date, Dapecol prison reservation is the site of the biggest banana plantation in the world.
Iwahig Penal Colony is the biggest penal facility in the country at 40,000 hectares comprising mostly of undulating vegetation and pure jungle. It has often been referred to as the last forest frontier in the country. 60% of its wild life and fauna have as yet to be catalogued and identified by modern science. It introduced the first open prison approach, a model acknowledged by United Nations and lifted liberally the open institution program in Japan’s correctional system. It is a land-locked area in the middle of Palawan province, not an island, organized during the American Occupation. The term “Iwahig” has evolved from the term “Iuhit” the name of the place before the penal facility was founded. The Iuhit penal Settlement now known as Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm was established in 1904 by the Americans in 28,072 hectares of land. The land areas expanded to 40,000 hectares in the late 1950s and expanded again to 41,007 hectares by virtue of Executive Order No. 67 issued by Governor Newton Gilbert on October 15, 1912. Since the 1970s the vast Iwahig prison reservation has been reduced with the issuance of a series of Presidential Proclamation. The last forest frontier is nearing extinction due to a number of issuances all intended to wreck the eco system and push climate change to the front.
New Bilibid Prison is oftentimes referred to as the National Penitentiary. It has been established in 1935 and since then, it houses almost 55% of the entire prison population in the country. It is also the site of the infamous Death Chamber where condemned criminals are executed. It is also the Central Office and Headquarters of the Bureau of Corrections, the seat of prison leadership, the Director of Corrections. The 500 hectare facility has seen better days since it was also, for a time in the past, the site of the biggest livestock farm and industry in Asia run by government and maintained by prisoners.
Correctional Institution for Women was founded on November 27, 1929 by virtue of Act No. 3579 as the first and only prison for women in the Philippines. (75 years later, on September 18, 2007, the Correctional Institution for Women in Mindanao was established by virtue of a Department of Justice Order within the sprawling prison reservation of Davao Penal Colony in Eastern Mindanao.) The 11 hectare facility was established on the vast and sprawling Welfareville Estate in Mandaluyong City. It was engulfed in a flame and the entire lumber structure, the whole facility was gutted down quickly. There was no casualty despite the massive fire. The women’s facility was rebuilt in the 80s and its population almost tripled.
Leyte Regional Prison is a Martial Law baby, established on January 167, 1973 by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 1101 and its operation through the issuance of a Presidential Decree (29). It is situated in a remote municipality of Abuyog, Southern Leyte. While ideally, it has an almost complete organizational complement, it is still fledging in terms of structural and physical attributes.
Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm, located in Sablay, Occidental Mindoro was established on September 26, 1954 by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 72. Sometime in the early 90s, a portion of said penal farm has been distributed to the victims—whose lands were inundated by massive lahar flow, burying everything under its weight, during the Mount Pinatubo volcanic wrath. You can reach the place by passing through 9 bridgeless roads, passing through only if and when the transport system can navigate the creeks from the capital town of San Jose City to Sablayan municipality. During the heightened insurgency conflict in the 80s, it has been noted that rebel (NPA) patrols would partake of prison ration while passing through the area towards their mountain lair camps. To date, it is host to numerous agro projects by government. Furthermore, its forest is the breeding ground of an endangered specie of Tamaraw.
I have had that rare opportunity to have worked very close to a number of appointed prison administrators—as a matter of fact, on all of them— in the Bureau of Corrections for the last 35 years. I started work as Guidance Psychologist when the agency’s name was still Bureau of Prisons. When it was changed in 1987 to Bureau of Corrections, I was a Division Chief. A few years later, I would be promoted to become a senior prison official as Penal Superintendent IV—-the highest ranking in the hierarchy of prison security. And I would be a regular fixture in the office of the Prison Director.
Since I was a newbie psychologist during my first year in the service, I was already pushed to assist in the office of the Director and from there, it would be a routine for me as a staffer as prison administrators would come and go. I have that extraordinary exposure to see up close how prison leaders work, their individual world view, their personal preferences, their orientation, their biases, their manners, their weaknesses.
All the prison directors I have worked with were competent leaders in their respective special concerns before they retired and appointed at the helm of the prison service. It is only but natural that they would bring in and introduce their orientation in a field almost outside of their chosen profession or vocation. Almost all of these appointees came from the uniform service. They have struggled to reach the apex of their career until retirement beckons. From there, they will again be reconnected to another challenge. From there they will have to make adjustments if not some changes and reinventions as far as their prejudices and preconceptions are concerned.
Most prison directors are icons of commitment and meaningful leaders except for a few who acted as comic relief in a dreary and lonely field like Corrections. Most made their mark as adept disciplinarians, skilled scholars, proficient managers and competent administrators. Most of them wanted to make prison service a swan song for their long career in government. Some made it with flying colors, others simply faded away.
For those who made a dent, an impression and a wholesome mark in the field of corrections, they have earned a historical place not only in a pillar of criminal justice administration but in the heart of the prison community. They are only a handful though. There is Raval, Goyena, Vinarao, Diokno and Pangilinan. Their respective administration comprised the milestone of anything positive that can be expressed in the corrective service. All of them gave their best, offered their finest hour, and tendered paramount concern in the service of the incarcerated humanity. To build a monument for them is an understatement.
Director Gaudencio S. Pangilinan, the recent appointee, (although he filed an indefinite leave to allow inquiries on the way his agency functions) deserves special mention in this category. He may have accumulated only a few months, a full year actually, but his work ethics were such that he never wasted a single minute attending to the requirements of the prison service. He was virtually present the whole time. He was everywhere, in all corners of the prison community and his accomplishments for the period were so monumental that it could even exceed all the combined performances of all his predecessors. He reformulated a working outline—he calls it the roadmap—and from there charted to improve the entire correctional service in the country. And like his appointing authority, the President, and on a personal note, he was darn honest and incorruptible. The warrior in him—remember that he is a combat general—made him single minded in winning against all odds. This quality easily could make him the best prison director ever.