There are those who claim that prison symbolizes Man’s inhumanity to Man. There are those however who would submit another argument that prison represented a humane approach than exterminating a human being because he committed an offense against his fellow man.
How prison as a facility is applied and how it is viewed in the context of human rights are issues that require an inquiry. Are prisoners exploited while serving time? Are they treated fairly well, their welfare protected and the prison condition conducive to rehabilitation?
Prison administration is always saddled with these concerns. As a matter of fact, the issues remain fresh notwithstanding the fact that there were collateral matters which would submerge it towards irrelevance. As soon as it is addressed, public awareness has waned and the issue is buried without resolution, only to await its resurrection at a future occasion. This would only mean that there is no genuine interest in tackling contentious issues unless media has made it its prime concern. Without drama there is no other way to resolve anything at all.
Congestion is the bane, the curse that makes human rights advocacy curl up with frustration. Yet congestion is everywhere in the correctional system. It is as if it has remained untouched for ages notwithstanding the fact that there is the human right vanguard to tackle its monstrous and inhuman effect. We wait for the effects of congestion through violent reprisal of those directly affected, the prisoners and prison staff. Once hostility explodes, agencies of government would quickly respond as if it is something not expected.
Media is the first to react. Heads of officers are always on the line to be stricken out. Everybody is blameworthy, from the lowly visitor to the administrator, from the fledging prison personnel to his by-the-book supervisor. If the prisoner is not pained, he is seen as privileged. If the prisoner is in pain, then it is his fate that brought him in that situation. The more the trouble the better for media to crow about, the better to expose, the better exposure as a matter of human interest with commercial value at that. Until blame is focused on something else. From a distance, human rights have been served.
And once the brouhaha is gone, once the institution has been diagnosed and penalties imposed its back to regular programming. Meanwhile, congestion is left behind unscathed, unattended, ignored even and forgotten, only to hibernate for its latter day awakening. The very issue for which human rights must attend and check—congestion—-has been relegated to the back burner. It is easy to blame people, so smooth to find culpability on human beings—prison staff and prisoner—than cast the blame on the physical structures. The public wants blood and infrastructures do not yield anything red at all.
And so everyone is back to square one. There is the perennial status of congestion. There is overcrowding everywhere. There is contagion of diseases, there is infection, bacteria and virus circulating, menacing every square inch of the air, there is filth in every dingy corner, the effect of too much warm bodies for so little space, there is rift in every chronic familiarity and gross acquaintance, danger and conflagration are just a snap away. Death is common place, dying is almost expected. It is no longer miracle that is being prayed for in seeking peace, it is more for a prayer seeking supernatural intervention. There is something abnormal to wish for serenity in what has been observed as its exact opposite given the environment.
As a matter of course and if indeed there is sincerity in resolving prison related problems, it is not the prison officers, nor the regular staffers, the volunteers and visitors, not even the prisoners for that matter that should be held to account for humane peace and order. It is congestion. Sardines, anyone?
The criminal justice system must be applied in a cold, neutral and objective manner. It cannot be otherwise or the system would loose its meaning. It must pass muster from law enforcement to prosecution, from the courts through corrections, until eventually towards community. That is how it should work.
Considering the fact that of all imperatives of criminal justice, it is in corrections where a convict stays and spends a considerable period of time, a different projection is therefore to be applied. From a cold, neutral and objective way, corrections must exude a different persona, a relatively contrasting persona from that of the system. The prison community must perceive their authorities not from the prism of hostility but rather from the point of fair alliance. That is to say that prisoners must realize that their custodians as parent, as friend, as confidant.
There is no other way unless one intends to breach the principles of human rights and transgress every effort to make prison life a humane community.
Corrections adheres to safekeeping and rehabilitation of offenders. The only way through this mandate to be applied is through the heart and mind. It may be off tangent with what has been its traditional past, its recent behavioral relations but working on the welfare of the prison community does not sit well with imposing tortures and harassments.
Offenders have violated the norms of society. They have disturbed the peace and desecrated public safety. Their notoriety equates disenfranchisement with social life. As a result, they should bear the brunt of segregation and enforced lamentation in a small space called prison. If at all they are beyond redemption, the State could have unplugged all hopes and should have pulled the lever of extermination. But it cannot. The criminal justice administration has as yet to fulfill the apex of justice, the true determination of truth. As it were, there are a number of acquittal in prison, this for a period after review of (some even would take place over) 10 years!
Name every person of substance, any hero even any spiritual leader, be they event makers or event made. Name any one who has achieved greatness and significance. All of them have something in common—they were all imprisoned once upon a time.
The guilty and innocents are within the enclave devoted to incarceration. Like the free community they are there co existing, partaking of life in a restricted and limited manner. Prison could only offer so much. But there is one area, which can level this up and promote justice in the real sense—the correctional orientation of its officers.
They should believe that their role is crucial in the mandate of rehabilitation, in the course of behavioral reformation. From their ranks should emanate the principle of brotherhood, of concern as in family ties and commitment in the pursuit of friendship. Such persuasive projection to the prison community could lead eventually to a change of perception, from hostility to cooperation, from treachery to collaboration. Such is the essence of reform, the lifeblood of rehabilitation, the soul of corrections.
Have you heard of an experiment conducted in Stanford University best known as “Obedience Experiment” in 1971 where a psychologist (Philip Zimbardo) wanted to investigate the impact of prison work on human behavior? Well, there was such a research made.
In said experiment, researchers organized a mock detention facility at the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department and organized a group composed of 24 students to play the roles as prisoners and guards. The group was selected from a bigger list because of their clean record—no mischief background, psychologically and physically fit.
The experiment would be conducted in a two week period and each participant will receive $15 a day.
The mock prison simulated the exact environment of a detention facility—the size, the climate, the condition. The participants were then randomly assigned into two—the prisoner group and guard group. Those assigned as prisoners were to remain “imprisoned” for 24 hours a day while those who were designated as guards were given work assignments in three eight-hour shifts. The guards were allowed to leave the area until their next shift. CCTV and microphones were installed to record and observe the behavior of prisoners and guards.
The Stanford experiment was expected to be completed in two weeks but it was terminated in just six days. Something went wrong which if pursued might damaged the behavior of participants irreversibly. Those playing the roles of guards became rude and abusive; and those who assumed as prisoners showed signs of extreme stress and anxiety.
The experiment further revealed that “while the prisoners and guards were allowed to interact in any way they wanted, the interactions were generally hostile or even dehumanizing. The guards began to behave in ways there were aggressive and abusive toward the prisoners, while the prisoners became passive and depressed. Five of the prisoners began to experience such severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety, that they had to be released from the study early….even the researchers themselves began to lose sight of the reality of the situation. The research team leader—psychologist Zimbardo—who acted as the prison administrator, overlooked the abusive behavior of the prison guards and the emotional deterioration of inmates, until a graduate student (Christina Maslash) voiced objections to the conditions in the simulated prison and the morality of continuing the experiment.”
The study categorically demonstrated what has been a regular feature of any prison environment, that incarceration is a powerful factor in a situation that can alter human behavior. It has been noted that “Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not normally act in their everyday lives or in other situations. The prisoners, (on the other hand) placed in a situation where they had no real control, became passive and depressed.”
While the experiment failed to reached its final conclusion, and was even criticized for neglecting to mimic all of the environmental and situational variables of a real prison life, it gave an initial understanding on how the situation can influence human behavior.
My point in sharing this piece of educational exercise is for prison workers to know what is behind our work environment, the unspeakable and at times invisible forces that influence manners and deeds, so that objectivity will not be lost, neutral disposition will remain as it is and our minds will be enriched with the thought that prison—our work place—is not a training ground for cruelty but a space to express commitment and understanding on the frailty of the incarcerated humanity.
As we gain confidence in strengthening the resolve to be firm and just in prison administration, in turn we are fortified with wisdom and maturity. No other branch of government service can offer that much advantage.
- Finally a law that would push the Bureau of Corrections from its base reference of Prison Law of 1917 to the present times (with SB 3335 re An Act Strengthening the Bureau of Corrections and providing Funds Therefor otherwise known as Corrections Act of 2012) through a bill which has been approved for passage and eventually for review and signature of the President.
- The proposed law had three versions at the level of Congressional Committee. As soon as it was forwarded to the Senate, it has been reformulated under the Committee on Justice and the Senate Committee Report no. 487 (under the sponsorship of Senator Chiz Escudero and Senator Franklin Drilon) and it eventually became SB 3335.
- The Bill was discussed and deliberated in August 9, 2011 and eventually was approved on third reading last December 17, 2012. Once signed by the President, it becomes a law in 15 days as stipulated.
- The Bill, which is expected to be signed into a law early next year, has the following features:
- The State recognizes the need to professionalize and restructure Bucor through upgrading its entire management system.
- The law effectively made the Bureau of Corrections a uniformed bureau.
- As a uniformed bureau, the compulsory retirement age is 56 years old.
- The head of the bureau is referred to as Director General with three deputy directors—all of them to be appointed by the President as recommended by the Secretary of Justice. They have a term of office not to exceed 6 years.
- The Bureau shall operate with a directorial structure. (Hence Reception and Diagnostic Center will be renamed as Directorate for Reception and Diagnostics, etc.)
- All Bucor lands accordingly shall proceed to work on the administrative process and have a certificate of title registered under its name.
- The law likewise contemplates the formation of a Philippine Corrections Academy patterned after PNPA and PMA.
- Position title of personnel is changed. From Prison Guard I, it will henceforth be Corrections Officer I. The highest position in the career ladder which is Penal Superintendent IV will be called Corrections Chief Superintendent.
- All positions in the Bureau of Corrections shall be governed by CSC rule on Qualification Standards. Those without eligibility therefore will be given 5 years within which to qualify or would be subject to attrition, that is, separated or retired from the service.
- The law effectively increases one grade higher than the previous base line grade for officers at the top and those at the rear have an increase of five salary grade (from prison guard 1, salary grade 5 to Corrections Officer 1 at salary grade 10.)
Note: Congress approved on third reading almost the same version as what the Senate earlier approved. On the last week of January, 2013, Congress sent to Senate the bill for the Bicameral review. It has been resolved that the Bill will be submitted to the President, who certified the same on its urgency. The BuCor Act of 2013 is hopefully a law about to be born this year. But there is a catch. The appropriation for said law will take effect five years from the date the law has been passed.
Dear Supt Tesoro,
Good day…ako po si Joy Sayangda,BS Architecture-5 from the University of La Salette Santiago City,Isabela.
Kasalukuyan po ang thesis ko: PROPOSED REGIONAL PRISON AND PENAL FARM for Region @ which is to be located in Cordon,Isabela.
I am aiming po for the COMFORT of Inmates through Architectural Approach. Since wala pong Correctional Architecture sa Philippines.
The concept of my proposal sir is “REFORMATION THROUGH THE CONCEPTS OF ARCHITECTURE.” As it was explained to me by the Supervisor of Education in CIW,SECURITY and REFORMATION are the two goals of the correction.Dahil po sa dami ng naresearch ko about our penal institutions Ive learned that it is presently awful living inside.My term of applying COMFORT is to ease further emotional.psychological and physical effects of imprisonment to inmates whose lives are doomed.That I have learned the fact that being deprived of one’s liberty is already punitive.
To ease and aflame HUMAN RIGHTS,since it’s what we all respect culturally,is to give the rights and just “ang para kay juan ay para kay juan” is what I want to show in my proposal.That through Architecture we can make the change we deserve to give to these people whoever and whatever made them up.That through Architecture,we can show that a boring and unhappy place can be a nicer place to live life fully even way is inside.
Iniisip ko na po kasi sir kung ako o pamilya ko ang mga makukulong—EVERYBODY DESERVES A FAIR LIFE.hehhehehehe”,) JOY*
Any facility designed for incarceration is never an enjoyable area. As a matter of fact, the deprivation of liberty, the loss of freedom, the air of regimentation and absolute totalitarian climate makes it indeed an awful if not a traumatic experience. Even if you install a split type airconditioning system complete with digital television with top of the line food for the prisoner, the experience of imprisonment is still awful and unfortunate. Prison administrators cannot reduce the psychological and pathological effect of detention even if everything around the prison camp is written in comfort. Comfort cannot be introduced into the consciousness of inmates unless one is about to be released. For the prisoners, the promise of integration into the free community is already a inch closer to what we refer to as comfort.
The only way architecture can alleviate the condition of present day correctional facilities is through a design which promotes spatial consideration. All prisons and jails all over the country are suffering from loss of space, from congestion, from sardine-like situation. Architectural concepts dealing with space or designing something that would liberally partake of greater spatial zones makes a great idea in the fulfillment of prison rehabilitation.
Boredom and the state of unhappiness are personal characteristics which cannot be changed through infrastructure. This is where the trained professional prison worker comes in. These professionals are the catalyst in behavior modification. We can have the best basketball court in town, complete with rubberized flooring and glass boards but when the referees are incompetent, there will always be trouble and violence.
Human rights is a borderline issue in correctional administration. For how can human rights per se be imposed in prison when the fountainhead of human rights is freedom. Prisoners lost it by way of violating the law. The courts and the corrections pillar have to clip the right of freedom, thus effectively reducing the offender’s human rights. Remember that when we say “right” it is something that cannot be taken away, like right to life. There are basic human rights however and these are mainly referred to as privileges. In prison, it is privilege more than right that is contemplated.
Kaya kung tayo makukulong, let us not expect a grand area for reception. Magdala na lang ng madaming libro at sa isang sulok, magbasa ng magbasa na lang. There is real comfort in reading and in spending time with literature. Regards. VJT
An important function I exercise as a prison administrator is to sign release papers of prisoners who have completed serving their sentence. One out of every 100 released prisoners is an elderly; someone whose age is 65 years old and above. Along this line, I wish to share an instance recently.
One fine day while picking stocks for my personal subsistence, I met an old man slowly creeping in one dingy corner of the market place and I recognized the man as one of those whom I counseled before handing over their discharge papers. He was once a prisoner and was already out in the open, a member of the free community and must be relishing the air of freedom. He must be that happy except that he was old and probably no family to turn to. He was probably looking intently at me, trying to figure out where we met. I had the same difficulty too until I saw a familiar tag, a tattoo on his arm.
On my way back to my vehicle, I was searching for something to anchor my observation that day. I thought that I should also conduct a follow through for this particular sector. In my mind, I was asking, “Is this the real score or is it only a rare, uncommon situation. An exceptional case.” I was intrigued how an elderly prisoner once released would fare in the free community. And so I improvised a crude tracking system just to satisfy my conscience.
Our culture values the presence of the elderly, no doubt. They are looked up to and consulted. We defer and respect their opinion; their witticism and wisdom are oftentimes reckoned. This adulation however is reserved only for those who have something to pass on by way of inheritance. But what happens when the elderly, unable to find a job, completely dependent, physically weak and unable to stand the rigors of labor seeks succor from his family. In other words, what if the elderly is economically reliant on a family sustained by shoestring budget which is what majority of families are in the first place. He had no other recourse but be a mendicant. He seeks solace in the street begging for alms, mercy and sympathy. Well, not so much on mercy and sympathy actually but more for alms actually. They are literally thrown into the public pavement to compete with peddlers, hawkers and all sorts of street urchins. They are already an encumbrance and they are prone to envy the dead more than the living. And these are our ordinary and common elderly.
What if said aged person would come out of institutional life, to face squarely the reality of pounding one’s hand to earn a living. A released elderly prisoner therefore is facing a blank wall. He has no family waiting for him. If at all there were relatives he could identify, he is wont to contact them anymore since he can no longer contribute and would only pose as an overhead expense for them. Prisons has reduced his reputation into tatters and he slips into that unwanted and loathed sector, an afflicted and detested portion of an active population. In prison, they are already a burden; outside, much more so.
And so I went to see a hospice in a nearby town to have these released prisoners admitted. Local governments do not usually have a program for this sector. The considerate looking administrator immediately explained that the hospice is a private facility and every ward is duly sustained by a monthly service fee. Accomplished children with no one to attend to their parents would enroll their elders in this facility. So nothing goes for free. If at all I would introduce a senior citizen into the fold, I must pay the corresponding sustenance.
I went further with another approach. I have recently organized a correctional institution for women within the vast penal reservation and in my projections I would require some of the female inmates to undergo training as caregivers. After exposing the idea to the general prison population, almost all the female wards well except for the infirmed and the physically challenged received the proposal positively. Accordingly, they could repay their debts to society by doing something good to their conscience rather than idle themselves awaiting for the date of their release. They were animated to immerse and apply their skills on the job.
I have already identified a good site nearby the correctional facility for women. I was able to interest a few friends in the private sector. However, I intently toned down the rhetoric because politicians may pick it up for their opinionated purposes and it would be bad for a budding cause. On the way to fulfilling a dream, it’s all systems go.
And so the journey to organize a hospice for the elderly released prisoners has began.
I have a number of recorded cases in my personal journal where I would descriptively take note of how a prisoner conducts himself in the face of incarceration. I have been in the prison service for more than three decades and the exposure is worth sharing. Not everyone has that rare opportunity to rub elbows with offenders more so if for once the offender was occupying a significant part in the pantheon of power—that is, one who wields a respectable kind of power on a vast constituency. Such a person holds the reigns of authority which could mean the life and death of anyone. And for this type of character, imprisonment or be penalized by incarceration is the worst that could befall him.
Let me recall the case of one Monico. He was formerly a branch clerk of court in a province North of Luzon until a case was slapped on him for estafa. The looks could be deceiving. He was almost Caucasian, smooth fair skin, medium built, in his late 30s and self assured. He was gentle and with good manners. He was clean shaven, groomed and on the side of confidence. That was on the day he was admitted in the Penitentiary. After a few hours, after the last of his escorts would leave, his whole person would drastically change.
Here was a good looking man who would cry as in moaning and in turn would scandalize the entire quarantine area—the place where newly received prisoners are confined in batches. And he would continue crying all throughout the entire week. Looking how detested the fellow has become; he literally was transformed into a greased looking character, unkempt hair, shabby comportment, cantankerous and ill tempered. He was already ripe to be beaten by his fellow inmates had it not for the segregation procedure the security personnel had undertaken on this type of offenders. Suddenly he was no longer that gentle person he would project. He evolved into a scum almost overnight. After a few struggling months, he died of a lingering illness due to in large part to his carelessness and predisposition to filth.
Then, there was this postmaster in a postal station from central Luzon who was imprisoned for doctoring his daily time record. Let me call him Leopoldo. He was the opposite of Monico. He was in a way unruly when he was turned over to the institution along with uneducated felons. Like his company, he was disheveled, scruffy and untidy. The only similarity he had with bureaucrats like Monico was their age. All others were completely the reverse. Even after a period the change would manifest in a surprising manner. He was like Monico, also a bureaucrat before he was charged and sentenced for five years. The change would recur after his admission; from a grumpy character into a behaved person. His prison uniform may be that low quality textile and easily stained and dusted but it is clean. His manners project education and breeding. Suddenly, he looked more of civilian personnel in prison than an inmate.
Former bureaucrats serving time in prison can be found in the extreme side of the population behavioral equation. Either they are the brusque and arrogant or they are the tamed and easily a choice to be selected as trustees or orderlies. It could be the result of their exposures and orientation as government worker that they imbibed such conduct but on the whole, they are never gregarious and always diffident and reserved. They are always inhibited and the last to respond to any order. They however could sustain whatever it is that is dictated on them, more assiduous and steadfast in following rules than the rest of the population.
Since these former bureaucrats occupy the extreme end of the behavioral scale, they could easily be located. Either they become active gang members or on the other hand, the most loyal security assistants or the most ardent office helpers.
And one can find these two contrasting persona haggled in every corner comparing notes while those in between were busy with their institutional chores. They constantly lament their fate and would cast aspersion on government and most especially the realization that they only have a few friends they can count on. They are united when it comes to the travail of serving time, always exchanging ideas and volunteering information. No, they are never on the compromising side, as in spying on what goes on in their respective posts. They would never discuss gangs or prison administration. The issue that constantly hugs their conversation is centered always on family, government and freedom.
Even if some of them would be ranked as high profile or celebrity prisoner, they are never that emphatic to project their worth. They are conservative when it comes to exposure. Unless prodded, they would never even take any initiative. It is precisely this initiative after all that brought them to prison. It is late for them though to realize that in government, initiative is a crime.
A bureaucrat in prison therefore is a picture of a bolt from the blue and his appearance expressed in coldness. They are the newbie sector since mainly what they have violated are mostly laws recently promulgated. This sector is non-existent before and probably would be amended later in the future. Meanwhile, they are the unlucky few severed from the mainstream of contemporary providence.
I have encountered a lot of prison volunteers in my long span of career in the prison service but there is one person I considered a mystery—an enigma. He came into an area abhorred and detested by the free community. Prison is not a picture perfect place to spend one’s fitting career. Not even to a philanthropist or saint for that matter. The mere thought of prison, any decent and law abiding citizen would have expressed loathe and disgust already. But despite this odium backdrop, a single minded person would brave the challenge, confront the eerie atmosphere and change detention climate; and transform it into an academe. He was Dr. Cecilio Halili Penson.
The gentleman volunteer
He was Doc Celing in the prison community. A tall, dark and athletic person. He walked gracefully and projected a gentleman of the old school. He was audacious in the pursuit of education. He wanted people to listen to him intently and his presence commanded respect and deference. He was in his early 80s when he started his prison volunteer crusade. Yet he looked far younger than his age. He was impatient for accomplishment but seriously patient when discussing an idea.
When he came in for the first time in the penitentiary as a volunteer, the institution was unprepared. The prison officers were all familiar with do gooders coming from the ranks of the religious and others with commercial inclination. But never on someone with an honest purpose in educating the ill educated and reforming the pathologically deformed mindset of a convict. He had a doctorate in philosophy and his followers in his prison work were quick to address the kindly gentleman using the salutation of Doc. He was almost a permanent fixture in the prison camp where I was assigned to manage. It was a facility for the newly arrived prisoners in the National Penitentiary.
A work in progress
Doc Celing would endear himself to the prison community with his religious zeal in attending a class he dubbed “applied arts and sciences”. He abhorred dogma and theories and in the courses he offered, everything was conveyed through case studies. He would hide the technical jargon through amusing stories. And the prisoners not only would enjoy each session, the end of each day would always be highlighted with prayers and hopes for Doc Celing to continue and pursue further his interaction ad infinitum. Prisoners had a sad experience of having embraced a committed visitor only to be deserted instantly only after a few greetings. They never wanted Doc Celing to leave them as yet.
The prisoners would almost memorize every stanza of phrase which Doc Celing would often impart to impress the teacher on the sharpness of his students. They loved their mentor to the extent that some prisoners would confide to me that almost all of them had a tattoo mark of “Doc CHP” on their arms! I kept it a secret also to Doc Celing for fear that it might turn him off, and eventually would be a cause to bid the boys goodbye. It was a secret I never revealed even in the most trying of times as when I was promoted to the rank of Chief Superintendent, I had this policy of obliterating gang marks. The Doc CHP tattoo had all the makings already of a gang! And in my preemptive strikes, those with this tattoo were exempted. I recruited them at that time as that para-security group assisting my security personnel in rounding up the gangs.
The mysterious Don Emilio
Doc Celing would begin his pontification on how to prosper with his story, the main protagonist he would christen as Don Emilio. Don Emilio was, in his narrative, the central figure from where all wits and wisdom of getting ahead would commence. His students were all hyped at how this Don Emilio could defeat his detractors and competitors. It was for them a symbol of success, an icon to be emulated, and an example on which they could base their decision making.
I asked Doc Celing once, “Sir, I was hearing a lot from your students about Don Emilio. Is that fiction or is that you or your father?” He replied, “I was writing a book about Don Emilio. He is my main character. Here is my manuscript and I have as yet to finish it when I got involved in teaching here. So instead of writing the thoughts of the person, I used it as the central spirit in liberating the minds of prisoners instead.”
For me, Doc Celing remains up to the present a very mysterious man, an enigma as a matter of fact. He would rather be there in the confines of the prison camp tutoring inmates rather than pursuing a grand policy for the education of all. After almost two years in the prison community where he had established a school for the applied arts and sciences and went on to organize the first college degree for prisoners program in the national penitentiary, he bid his graduates and followers for some rest. We were all saddened by his departure. Those were heady days when the Marcos administration was already on the brink of collapse.
The rebirth of Democracy
One day, days later after the bloodless revolt at Edsa, I was surprised by an agitated knock at the door of my prison quarters. After opening the door, there I saw the towering figure of the man whom the prison community has held as an extraordinary intellectual. “Venjo, good evening. Nice to see you!” said Doc Celing. Still smarting from the sudden presence of an icon and a bit surprised at his appearance on the dead of night, I almost choked in responding, “Errr. Good evening Sir,.. Are you alone or with someone,…please come in, Sir. And please have a sit….Sorry for the mess, I have books everywhere and I have as yet to clear my living room….”
“No,no,no, don’t bother. I came here to tell you that we have a new government.”
“But there were still pocket resistance and things might turn up differently, Sir. You know, just this morning, there were a number of military trucks positioned in front of the administration building. From what I heard, prisoners will be moved out to counter people power…”
“Is that so? What happened then?” Doc Celing’s face expressed sadness.
“But don’t worry Sir, most of the gate guards were my former trainees, my students in the training school and they entrusted to me all the keys from all entrance and exit gates. Nobody can mess around with our community here.” Thereupon, I showed a bag full of keys to Doc Celing. “I understand however Sir that President Marcos capitulated and so our new President is Madam Aquino now.”
“That’s right Venjo, and I am very proud because my daughter, Margie, the wife of Philip Ella Juico, the writer, you must know him, is designated as appointment secretary.”
“That’s great Sir. You must be our new Prison Director then!” I went up close to Doc Celing and excitedly extended my hand for a firm handshake.
“Hey, Venjo, not too fast. I never meddle with the affairs of my kids. No, never. They do not even know that I am working here in Prison!” That disclosure almost floored me. Here was a teacher who had spent a great time, almost the whole weekend for years on end, sacrificing comfort in favor of teaching prisoners and to think that he has never informed his family that he was in such crusade.
“But Dwight, your son, knew of your programs here.”
“He thought that my prison visitation was a passing fancy only.”
“Anyway Sir, we can hope that under the new administration the golden age of prison service would be near!”
Hearing that energized expression, Doc Celing stood up, looked at his wrist watch and shook my hand. “I will see you next time Venjo. I must be back to my dear Nena before she discovers our secret!” We had a loud conspiratorial laugh that night.
Renewal of friendship and aspiration
It would take years before I would hear again Doc Celing. I was already promoted and would be designated to trouble shoot problem spots in the penal system. I would oftentimes be assigned to take command of all major penal establishments in the country and those were times when I have lost contact with a dear friend. I would still marvel at the thought of one man in his advanced years braving the stress and tension of rehabilitating prisoners.
I would learn later that he was officially tapped to handle University of Life in Pasig. Once upon a time, my sister, during the Marcos years, was its administrator under the supervision of Dr. Onofre D. Corpuz and then First Lady Imelda Marcos. My sister however was one of the administrative casualties during the Edsa Revolt. But Doc Celing’s post at UL was short lived. The facility was transformed into the main office of the Department of Education thereafter.
I contacted Doc Celing and informed him that I was assigned at Davao and if perchance he had some business or would rather take a relaxing tour down South, he may find Davao Penal Colony an interesting area to continue with our education program for prisoners. It was a mere shout in the wilderness and it was made more as a matter of greeting than an invitation. At that time, Doc Celing was deep into the training of those who will leave abroad for a contracted work.
Our second wind
But lo and behold! I received a brief note that Doc Celing had finally accepted my offer to visit Davao.
I have forgotten the time of his last visit but definitely that day when he appraised Davao Penal Colony, after our day long tour of the area, his presence would be felt and would be unforgettable. We had a pact to pursue higher education in Davao, the same program we both introduced in the national penitentiary. The man I was in touch constantly a decade ago was still the same energetic person I had as company that time. Time stood still for the enigmatic man. He was already defying nature. His mind was still as sharp, as incisive, and as clever as before. I began to draft an educational formulation for Davao Penal Colony and he was guiding my outline. Finally, under his inspiration, Dapecol went ahead with the foundation of the Alternative Learning System, an obscure pedagogical approach then until it became a policy—an education mode which several years later would benefit boxing great Manny Pacquiao and other celebrities wanting for higher education.
The terminal point
I was deep into the task of overhauling the system, tapping NGOs left and right for involvement, when suddenly my sister, whose residence is near Valle Verde Subdivision in Ortigas, informed me to verify the passing away of Doc Celing. I was able to check it with my Manila staff and immediately flew to attend the wake. I came in late and the remains of my friend were sent for cremation already.
I went back to Davao with a determined fervor to continue with what we have started. And to date, unlike any other penal establishment in the country, Dapecol has a college degree program for male and female prisoners, topping national exams in the Alternative Learning System and other government education accreditation tests and has started courses recognized by Tesda. Doc Celing was behind every effort and we could only offer a fledging corner we named after him, a simple testament to a grand visionary.
A living legacy
His demise constituted a sad day for prison education. His former students, all ardent followers bearing his initials, mostly released already, must have heard about the depressing news. But for us whom he cared for have carved in our hearts the living Doc Celing and he would continue to live through us and through the influence of his thoughts and ideas, contributing by paying forward his concern and commitment to those places where we would reside and retire.
Doc Celing spent his senior years in one place and through his released apprentices, he is now all over country and possibly around the world.
Jimboy was charged in court for carnapping and he was sentenced to serve the penalty of life imprisonment. In this country, a lifer is confined for 30 years. He did just that. What made him a cut above the rest and for that matter as an inmate I would repose my trust during the period of his incarceration, especially in maintaining my official vehicle as a prison officer, was his expertise as a mechanic. Skilled prisoners are highly respected in the prison community and valued by officers. Skilled ones like barbers, writers, mechanics, technicians, artists, musicians—-well, it is only the universe that pays tribute to them notwithstanding the offense committed but by their environment as well. They make life comfortable not only for them but for those around them.
When a skilled prisoner is released, he is torn between a community (prison) that embraced and trusted him and the free community which, through the courts and his complainant have vomited him. Of course, there is a feeling of confusion and some kind perplexity. In prison, he had no freedom, everything seemed controlled. Outside, on the other hand, he is misunderstood and suspected. In prison, he knew who his real friends are. Outside, he lives in doubt and wariness. He found his faith in detention, while as a freeman he is constantly lost.
As soon as Jimboy received his release paper, he chose the middle ground. For those with little skill to express would rather stay along the periphery of the penal establishment. They would rather be seen by a prison officer in nearby town where he will be greeted as a “graduate” rather than return back to his community of orientation where a single crime may immediately be inferred on his presence. He asked me if I could adopt him. He wanted to be under my employ even if he will not be given remuneration. Just a little space where he could repair and exercise his know-how. He would be staying with a prison officer in the free community and at the same time, reminded that he is also, as he expects it, to be treated as a convict, of whom he was once and almost, loved it. Shades of Stockholm syndrome where the hostage has grown dependent on his captor on almost everything—from food to protection.
Like any total institution, prison is not designed to prepare its inmates to a life of freedom. Prison teaches and imposes a life of dependency. It is the individual outlook to appreciate the loss of liberty and it is up to the prisoner to repent, reinvent or take revenge. No amount of prison orientation program can reformulate this aspect. The period of his institutional servitude dictates the kind of life a prisoner would become once he is released. Hence there are countries that revisit the sentencing scheme in its criminal justice administration. Prolonged incarceration destroys the positive effect of disciplinary detention. It negates the value of custody and transforms the person into a zombie.
Jimboy immediately found peace of mind under my jurisdiction. He prospered as a skilled mechanic that he is. Except that he never found time to take care of his health. A few years later, he suffered a debilitating disease and passed away.
Another prisoner sought succor after receiving the release paper. She was a female inmate who appreciated music and became one of the pioneer members of the prison band. As its organizer, I maintained my members through regular jamming and counseling. When she was released, she asked if she could stay under my custody. Accordingly, after she got her discharge certificate, she went back to her community of orientation if only to find her husband serving time in the provincial jail. Her children were nowhere and their house pawned away. She feared that she had no other place to go except to go back to prison.
One day, she appeared at the doorstep of my prison quarters, eyes bulging, shabbily dressed and with a sad story. She needed a job. I required my security aide to facilitate her application for employment in a nearby farm and in a week’s time, she was a picture of accomplishment. Prisoners given a break and trusted to be absorbed in the workforce are the most industrious and diligent. They work hard and are very conscientious. She stayed for a while until one day; I found a note posted on my door. She has gone back to her family. She saved and sacrificed so that she could sustain a crusade to look for her missing children. On weekends, she would go from one town to another until finally, she saw her children employed as house help. She rented a small cottage near the farm where she was employed and from there began to turn another leaf of her life.
The challenging part for those who have been through incarceration is not on the day they served their time, but like any college graduate, it is on the day they would leave the portal of that community where they spent the greater part of learning to understand the true meaning of freedom.
It is not exactly the way to a resort or a zoo or a market place. It is not even a park or a playground. Davao Penal Colony (or Davao Prison and Penal Farm) is the second biggest prison facility in terms of land area and inmate population in the country. And this is not actually a typical penal establishment where the entire population are confined and restricted into an enclosure of cemented fence combined with cris crossing combat wires.
Davao Penal Colony, once upon a time, was the biggest prison establishment in the country and during World War II became an imperial garrison by the Japanese invading army. It has hidden historical role as when it confined and left untold atrocities among its denizens, mostly American servicemen who were imprisoned as POWs (Prisoners of War). A recent book “Escape From Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War by John D. Lukacs, detailed the suspenseful plight of those servicemen and how a few managed to escape and a fraction of those who evaded, survived the rigors and challenges in crossing the unforgiving and treacherous jungle surrounding the penal facility.
During said period, the regular prison was closed down and its administrative side transferred to Iwahig Penal Colony. For a number of years, it was detention area commanded by the Japanese Kempetai or Special Forces. That was its history, its past, its inglorious reputation.
When War time was over, it was reopened and the facility took another persona, that of a repository of excess prisoners from Manila. Most of those sent to serve time were all members of unruly groups, the violent and incorrigibles. In no time, gangs predominated the landscape of the prison camp. And as certain as their aggressive predisposition to control the prison community, relationship bordered on cruelty and sadism. There were fierce competition to rule and control among prisoners sending the prison authorities into feats of brutality and vicious response. Those were heady and ferocious times when the daily count of death would average to 10. Riots in this part of the prison system were the worst in the history penal administration. As compared from the Davao prison, the Muntinlupa penitentiary rampage was kids play! This was in the roaring 60s.
The first Public-Private-Partnership
Then an unthinkable happened. A private company (Tagum Agricultural Development Corporation or TADECO) explored the possibility of conducting a joint agricultural venture with Davao Prison. It was experimental to say the least. While prisoners were bashing each other’s heads, running amuck and imposing dreaded violence against each other, with prison authorities left merely to record casualty and bury those who fell, a group of agriculturists were busy charting a farm that would introduce a crop which eventually would become the second biggest export in the country. That was an ironical period in the life of an institution. Where one faction decimates its enclave, another was pursuing for its salvation.
The succeeding chapter in the history of Davao prison was engulfed in some kind of contemplation. Prison violence would erupt occasionally until it fizzled out, while the swamp and estuary areas enveloping the prison camp were being transformed into an ideal farm. Prison administration and its prison community began to notice the transformation until eventually; they were lured into a productive pursuit, a collaborative effort in unison with development. Until finally, an agreement was forged to organize a joint venture program.
A Template of Modern Corrective Practice
Under this program are prisoners conscripted and enrolled in a Tesda formulated farming course. This is where qualified (soon-to-be-released or those under medium and minimum security status) inmates are immersed in agricultural based farming and provided with stipends equivalent to the wage of an agricultural farm worker in the free community. Some released prisoners, already skilled in banana farm care and maintenance, are absorbed in Tadeco and other farms in nearby towns.
Dapecol has gone a long way. From a dreaded and fearful penal complex to a highly productive center of learning where rehabilitation and reformatory programs highlight its mission and mandate.
While it was shunned as a place of terror before, now it is the template of reform programs where spirituality and education are its principal orientation. Within its grounds stand the Shrine of Our Lady of Prisoners also.
Currently, it is the Mecca of corrective lessons, a social laboratory of Criminology colleges in the whole eastern Mindanao.
For those in living in the periphery of the town and those residing in Davao, Davao Penal Colony is within a vast banana plantation, considered the biggest in the world, although technically, it is the other way around. The plantation is within the vast prison reservation of Davao Penal Colony.
Dapecol encroaches on three big local government subdivision, a city and two municipalities. Panabo city on the western side, Dujali municipality on the eastern part, Sto Tomas Municipality on the northern area. From Davao city, the de facto capital of Mindanao, it is 56 kilometers or an hour’s drive. Its road distance from Manila is almost 1, 500 kilometers. By land, it can be traversed for two days. By sea, three days trip.
Dapecol is likewise an extraordinary community segregated by farms from nearby municipal areas. In a highly predominant Visayan dialect province of Davao del Norte, it is the only enclave where Tagalog is the prevailing tongue. More so, it is also the only penal establishment in the country where there is a camp for male and another camp for female offenders.
Those who have taken a glimpse and have visited the place had only fond memories of visiting an ordinary prison breathing in an extraordinary manner.