The facade of New Bilibid Prison has been equated with imprisonment, whether it is featured in movies or in every documentary. It is situated in Muntinlupa city. Muntinlupa has become synonymous with incarceration, much like Mandaluyong for the mentally deranged for hosting the National Mental Hospital. Hence, the expression that one is to be sent to Muntinlupa means a person is to be penalized and imprisoned accordingly. NBP is the flesh and bones of the National Penitentiary and it has been there since the late 40s. Whenever there is dearth of news, it is always something in NBP that serves as filler since everything that revolves in the penitentiary is of human interest.
Previous to its establishment, then Bureau of Prisons was located in what is today the site of Manila City Jail along Recto Avenue, Manila. It was referred to as Old Bilibid Prison and considered the oldest penal facility antedating the oldest prison founded in Zamboanga (San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm) in 1872. Congestion in Old Bilibid Prison necessitated its transfer to a remote southern province south of Manila in what is today known as Muntinlupa, then a municipality of Rizal.
NBP occupied a 500 hectare rolling sprawl of hilly estate similar in size with that of University of Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. (Presently, around 200 hectares have been left after 50 hectares were allocated for informal settlers coming from colonies residing along the railway tracts; around 150 hectares were titled in favour of a government based subdivision—Katarungan Village 1 and 2; around 100 hectares were paved for the access road from Daang Hari to SLEX.) It was bought during the administration of President Manuel L. Quezon and was built for four years starting on the day of its procurement in 1940. The facility was completed in 1944 while the country was being bombarded during World War II. That explains the fact that NBP has been for a time a garrison station where the Japanese Imperial Army held their ground and had installed anti-aircraft cannons which nearly downed all military aircraft of the allied forces entering Manila as open city during the final confrontation.
In the mid 60s, NBP had seen the worst riots in the annals of corrective history. Gang wars became a staple of daily grind and deaths due to violence and cruelty were almost an ordinary routine. Violence mellowed but deaths continued at present to haunt correctional facilities not because of gang hostility but chronic ailments brought about by congestion.
NBP is also the site where the infamous death penalty execution chamber is located. Likewise, the central office of the Bureau of Corrections is co-located here where the Director of Corrections and division staffs hold their administrative posts.
At present, it has three imposing prison camps located a kilometre away from each other. There is the Maximum Security Compound, the Medium Security Camp and the Minimum Security Camp. The total number of inmates in the entire complex is 22,000. It has overshot the accommodation level of 10k. Hence, the congestion rate is almost 150%.
There have been a number of changes in the treatment of prisoners since the time of riots. There were a number of concessions undertaken including a progressive reformulation of rules that would govern the prison community and the security supervisory outlook.
The admission of political prisoners in the penal facilities triggered a lot of changes and their presence literally became the turning point in the observance of the human rights by prison custodial personnel. A number of compromises were also introduced including several privileges. The entry of visitors, the stretch of time afforded for families to stay with their inmate families literally reduced to zero any collective upheaval and group inspired violence. Instantly, riots became a historical relic.
Suddenly, the gloomy prison camp turned into a vivacious community breathing with hope and creativity. Despite the inhuman congestion obtaining inside the prison facility, there was relative ease of interaction brought about by an understanding corps of correctional officers and influx of visitors including a phalanx of volunteers directly from the ranks of the religious and the academe.
This blissful space however would be broken intermittently with the assumption of officers with varying moods in their bag of administrative artifice. While the inmates could adjust according to whatever rules are laid down, what they could not fathom are changes based on sentiments and moods. When these happen, there will be occasional trouble and complaints.
When I was directed to administer NBP (my fourth time actually), I tried to revive the space where inmates could easily breathe and move about. The theme of prison leadership was focused on welfare that prisoners should look up to prison administration as brotherly, as succour and as sanctuary. Since I could not physically expand their place because there were no funds to build additional facilities, I merely allowed the vertical exploration of space by inmates themselves. I tried to make life for the prison community less complicated as possible. There was only one rule I imposed: SUSTAIN PEACE, that is, no organized violence. From there, I virtually reckoned every creative expression they may submit, be it in arts, in music, in crafts, in technology, in education, in faith. If inmates were sworn to stay in the facility for years and must have to serve time in an overcrowded area, the most that I could offer is a period free from harassment, wholesome respect and a host of humane consideration. There was relative peace and collective harmony. That was NBP when for a limited time I reigned.
My professor in National Defense College of the Philippines quipped and advised us, his students in military science, sometime ago, to “go down the stage while the audience is still clapping.” It would have been my signal reminder whenever I take a sensitive task. As soon my job is up, that is all. No fanfare, no frills, just deliver the goods and back to the chair.
On May 2014, my birth month, I intend to bow out from the Prison Service. It has been 37 years. No prisoner could have lasted that long even if his penalty is multiple Life Terms. I have been in the business of supervising prisoners for close to four decades and time is up. I was a fledging 23 year old bachelor when I first entered the rusted grilled campus of the National Penitentiary and at this point, at the age of 60 (my Visayan friends would pronounce it as SEXTY), I formally plan to exit the scene.
It has been an adventure working in prison. I barely could count the days when I intentionally absented myself. It’s all fun and exciting serving the prison community. One can see relief from harangued faces after counseling is done. And what makes it engrossing actually is the story behind each tale about the inmate. A prisoner is virtually a book. In the whole agency, that is 34,000 inmates or 34 K stories or books! And their tales are as real as the bruise they have received and the scars they have created.
In the prison community, there is pain everywhere. There is lamentation. There is fear. There is constantly something that resembles dread and trepidation. Prisoners have gone through a terrible initiation in the criminal justice system from the time of arrest, detention, prosecution, court trial and promulgation. Entry into the gates of prison is like getting into Hades or Hell. And for the denizens, those who guard the ramparts, those who man the doors are seen as satanic as can be. And worst, I was one of them! I belong to that sector that restricts something, prohibits a lot, that controls so much, that imposes several limitations. The mandate is that no one flies out of the cookoo’s nest.
And there I was day in and day out. I could see guilty faces, sometimes meet innocent wiles. There were aggressive postures and subservient pleas. I could not even reconcile talking with a high risk prisoner and getting impressed with his blameless outlook. Indeed, a tiger in a cage is cute and cuddly than the one found in the forest. Whoever invented prison must have thought of capturing a segment of humanity to be appreciated for what it is.
I would surely miss those days after I retire from the service. All I have are memories. Of being at logger heads with my superiors, of being contradicted by peers, of being disregarded by subordinates. It was part of territory. Threats were even spices that made service that suspenseful. But what made working in prison worthy were those moments one would share with a resentful community. The friendship that would be forged in this situation is like heated metal forged in cold water and wind; it is solid and strong. And in the course of my immersion, I had made thousands of friends.
In a few exciting days, my career would blossom and would shift from drama to literature. I intend to write the best and the worst, the most and the least but first, a book about celebrity prisoners.
Retirement here I come.
When I learned about it, I registered my objection. No Mass by the highest Pontiff in Prison, not in my watch. It is not about prison, it is about a handful of prisoners. I was worried about those with mental derangement. The National Penitentiary is almost brimming to spill over proportion at 156% congestion rate. And those stuck in this community are no mean fly by night felon or ordinary snatchers. A lot of them have been adjudged by the judiciary as dangerous and hostile. Aside from drug lords and gambling lords, leaders of kidnapping and carnapping syndicates, there are confirmed bombers, rebels and unrepentant homicidal convicts. And they are literally lumped into imperfection.
Now, allowing persons of national import into this community where condition has achieved unbearable limits is pure foolhardiness. I will never be a part of this scenario. But somewhere between invitation and acceptance, there was spiritual audacity. The faith must be pursued wherever it would be. And prison is most likely the place where it should be conducted. I lost my case and the Catholic leadership was allowed to spread out his blessings.
December 22, 2013 at exactly 8AM, a group of religious nuns entered the prison gates and informed the officers on the arrival of His Excellency, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle*. The 57 year old Church leader made it a point to continue with the tradition started by almost all Cardinals before him in celebrating Mass in the National Penitentiary. For me, it was not tradition that matters, it was a security nightmare. In Vatican the best intelligence and most organized security system ever employed failed when two incidents involving two Popes were almost fatally assassinated. One was shot. One was stabbed. This is in Vatican which is a clean area, sanitized by technology and the finest spooks in the world.
And here is one situation where the highest spiritual leader of the land would celebrate Mass, face to face with the most dangerous sector of society, a community filled to the brim with what the judicial system would ascribe as persons whose conduct and crime would prescribe life imprisonment, a facility holding on specie known sociologically as pure predators. Anyone with a name, anybody with gravitas would surely be a perfect target.
The High Mass was celebrated with sacred silence and seriousness. The prisoners were at arm’s length during the spiritual exercise. The prison security force, ideal for maintaining order in a 5 thousand capacity population is stretched out to cordon 14 thousand ogling souls. The nuns and seminarians including a handful of volunteers are no match when an explosive trouble would erupt. I could not synchronize my breathing anymore. How I wish to pluck out the good Cardinal after his sermon and unload him outside the prison gates. He should not suffer the pain of waiting for danger to form in front of him.
The Holy Mass ended 11:20 AM, the Blessing was made by the Cardinal and he was escorted by a group of religious facilitators, cordoned by prison security, out from the Chapel and into the main gate. After the regulation picture taking, the religious leader was accosted into his van—safe, contented and sound. The religious program highlighting the Christmas Day was formally introduced.
All is fair and well. BUT WAIT! Not everything in the celebrated Mass was pure saintly serenity. There were two incidents that were buried from the consciousness of the Cardinal and those who attended the Mass. Two incidents involving mentally deranged inmates. One nearly got off to embrace the Cardinal during the Mass, the other one, immediately after the Blessings almost broke way, knife in hand and about to inflict suicidal scenario. The first incident was blunted by fellow inmates. The second incident involving an armed inmate was diffused by prison personnel.
It was good enough that no one from the party of the good Cardinal ever suspected that something happened. Even the nuns and volunteer religious workers were not aware that there was trouble somewhere near. Had anyone of the two ever created a scene, that episode would have been on front page already. Had the blessed Catholic leader harmed, that would have ended my career in prison which started 37 years ago.
Before the Mass, an inmate was surprised at the demeanor of his fellow inmate. He drank water from the aquarium. When he was chastised by the gang leader stating that the water was not safe and that it might poison him, the fellow stood his ground and pointed at the swimming creatures that if the water is poisoned, the fishes would have died already! He was promptly observed during the Mass.
The second inmate was a bit repentant as if he was struck by the Holy Spirit. He withdrew in a corner and flashed a homemade knife to the astonishment of some inmates in nearby confessional. There was a calibrated commotion. The inmate went to a corner and announced that he will commit hara kiri. As the prison security personnel were about to pounce, the inmate opened a packet full of shit and began to rub on his body and extremities. The air fouled and the security officers nearly fainted. The supervisor offered the inmate with drinks which the latter immediately accepted. The juice was laced with sleep inducing drugs until finally, the inmate was subdued and brought to the hospital. That also ended the brief commotion that would have marred the yuletide program.
The religious program was a successful blessing for the majority. It was however a nightmare for me.
*Tagle is the Professor of Dogmatic Synthesis at the Graduate School of Theology of San Carlos Seminary, the archdiocesan major seminary of Manila, and an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Loyola School of Theology of Ateneo de Manila University. Tagle has become involved in many social issues in the Philippines with emphasis on helping the poor and the needy while maintaining opposition against practical atheism, abortion, contraception, and the Reproductive Health Bill. He currently wields strong religious and political influence as the country’s primate, with an estimated 2.8 million professed Roman Catholics in his Archdiocese. Tagle speaks fluent Italian and English in addition to his native Tagalog, and is also proficient in reading Spanish, French and Latin.
Every last week of October since 1998, the Philippine correctional system celebrates Prison Awareness Week, like Fire Prevention Week or anything where social concern is focused or is persuaded to focus on a particular period.
Over at the National Penitentiary, at New Bilibid Prison, the face of corrective service in the country, where the so called basest, worst, most dreaded offenders are confined, the Prison Awareness Week is celebrated as National Correctional Consciousness Week, where it features the creative side of imprisonment. Here during the period, all penal establishments are all in display mode. Handicrafts of varying expressions are shown to the public.
The prison community is where one could find all offenders who were sensibly removed from free society, to be segregated from their community of orientation, physically deprived of family life, forced to live in a highly communal, almost dictatorial and regimented, grossly formulated routine of daily life for a specified judicially prescribed period.
Prison, it can be said, is an artificial community where everything is enforced externally and internally rendering life in a highly pressured and tensed situation almost unbearable to sustain. Deception is always the order of the day.
If there is anything genuine in every interpersonal contact, it is always centered on the individual interest of offenders. There is nothing social, there is nothing gregarious, there is nothing worth a sacrifice. Everyone is disadvantaged and any privilege offered is seen as a heavenly intervention. Prison is hell and it is never appreciated as home even by the vilest among the denizens.
Here one can find the radical among them de-radicalized by monotony and humdrum. Here one can find the sexually deranged almost castrated by fear. Here one can find the behaviorally maladjusted straightened out by peer group pressure. Anything lived previously as excessive, in prison becomes detoxified by excessive familiarization.
Outsiders never bring rehabilitation, that twin mandate of corrective safekeeping, into the prison community. It is an effect, which is internally formulated by latent frustrations and lamentation. It is brought about by contemplation. It is a personal offering almost a spiritual exercise by those who wish to be redeemed. It is winning over the past that bedeviled his life. It is an advent for change, a reinvention of the self, a birth of another person, a stronger, a firmer, a better one.
This is, at the core, what is celebrated every week of the year and as it culminates on the last day of every last week of October, on every Prison Awareness Sunday.
Whenever there is dearth on news to banner, media traditionally would flock in prisons and jails. The National Penitentiary is always at their cross hair. It is here where news, sensational ones, is to be grabbed. Even a small incident can be blown out of proportion and media followers would surely get their comeuppance. Every corner, every criminal profile is a sure fire formula not wanting for an audience. Writing something about prison is always a best seller.
A few days ago, 13 detainees—all undergoing trial for heinous crime, bolted Sagoy Jail in Ilo-ilo. They overwhelmed the custodial personnel. Thereafter, two prison guards in the National Penitentiary were hacked by a wayward inmate. These are but a few recent cases where prison personnel have to confront the hazards of their profession. They should be alert at all times, never to bring down their guard so to speak and of course, armed with the necessary security gadgets to protect their exposed bodies from sudden, treacherous attack. Here they must buy a vest, a tazer (stun gun) and a tear gas canister, to name a few. I say buy because there is no budget for these items. The vest alone could cost almost P10K. To be protected therefore from instant violence means a guard must fork out something like 30K for his personal welfare.
Every error in correctional administration is oftentimes blamed on its custodial personnel. While administrators would fail to get the usual logistical support from government because there is little fund as appropriation, the lowly guards must have to contend with what they have. But prisoners are growing more sophisticated due to their gang support and “education.” From this equation, the prison personnel are already at a disadvantage. While gangs have the muscle and resources to sow fear and bribe their way, the prison guards, on the other hand, have to scrimp to enforce institutional control. At the end of the day, it is the gangs dictating the tempo and in some penal establishments, prison administration merely serves as on-looker on how correctional facilities are governed.
Gangs have a tendency to buy officers to sustain their operations. Officers who are at the forefront have choices to make. Accepting grease money means a smooth performance, no untoward molestation, less stressful and a hassle free exposure in the prison camp. But of course, this is unacceptable and defies the principle of integrity in public service. On the other side of the coin, ignoring or declining the offer would mean that gangs are left to contract a hired hit man or a professional complainant to scandalize the officer in media using the money previously dangled. In which case, the officer faced and mired in controversy, will have no choice but seek refuge elsewhere. Either he must resign out of embarrassment or blame himself until depression maims him. These are but a few of the hazards and challenges of his profession.
Working in prison is a demanding exercise. Prison means control. Prison workers must control and provide an air of discipline in a highly totalitarian regime of the prison community. They must read the behavior of the inmates and the community as a whole. Like weathermen, officers must know that there is a lull before a storm. An unusual silent prison environment means a high probability that violence is to erupt. We speak here of a situation where the prison community is not filled to the brim. A congested facility however is a perfect mixture of trouble. Only a single fuse, like a spat, could trigger carnage. Only a few could survive prison service and usually, these are the people who can think ahead and anticipate the collective requirements of the incarcerated humanity. The demand is on one’s mind indeed.