In 1958, Elvis Presley sang a song “Trouble” in the movie “King Creole”. The song begins with, “If you’re looking for trouble, you came in the right place,” Elvis was of course not referring to prison service when he sang that neither his composer had prisoners in mind when it was written. But it was one phrase which never departed my consciousness during the time I got employed in the then Bureau of Prisons (now Bureau of Corrections). And so were my friends who were surprised to learn that I was working in prison. It was the expression “What???!” and “Oh, my!!!!” which greeted me every time I would show them my ID card. It was a reaction as if I volunteered to be taken as hostage or to a certain degree, an admission on my part for masochism.
In the late 70s, prison service carried a lot of impression. The prison community then had just come through a series of violent incidents. There were riots everywhere and the workers at times were veritably at the center of the storm. In New Bilibid Prison, there was a case where a prison guard while in the process of conducting headcount was sacked treacherously and his head bashed into smithereens. In Iwahig, a prison teacher was mauled and nearly raped after the culprit had decapitated another prison officer. In San Ramon, the prison superintendent was held hostage while his family was mercilessly massacred. In Davao, after every riot, the creek reeked with drums of flowing blood more than the waters that used to drift. That was the agency’s profile when I was admitted into the organization.
Less than 40 years later, prison service would have a makeover. Rehabilitation became a buzz word among prison workers. Although to a certain extent there was little understanding on the term, the word reduced the tension brought about by the violent history the agency had undergone in the past. Factions ruled the organization. There were the traditionalists and the progressives. There were the sadists and the liberals. There were the hard core and the soft hearts. There were the unschooled and the schooled. One can identify with and be a part of anyone or be a member of both. The prison service was a field of diverse interests observed and watched by a helpless and dependent prison community. On which side would prevail, the prison community would just hop along with subserviently.
While it can be said that prison work was the least attractive job for those seeking a career in the past, today it is different. Those in the field of social science would barge through any agency where their academics have trained them. Criminology as a course became an exciting discipline which literally would encourage anyone to dip into the science of prison administration. Prison service would no longer be a pariah course but a turf of humanities. Not that college graduates nowadays no longer have any jobs left except those in hazardous ones like prison service, but the branch of criminal justice administration has become a significant career on its own.
Along with the change came the evolution of the prison community. Gone were the days when those who would serve time were petty delinquents which would take a cue from violent expressions. While the profile of convicts would have little difference at all from their cousins in the past, the intelligence quotient of prisoners has grown by leaps and bounds. They can read behavior more than books. They can understand anything abstract more than anyone trained in numeric. They can anticipate, forestall and predict an incident. They are always a move ahead. They can bring down anyone without exerting any effort and they can precipitate a crisis.
The song of Elvis Presley while it has been declared as ancient and quite amusing, ended with an apt phrase which the newcomer ought to take heart, and it goes this way “So don’t mess around.”
I am at times at a loss whenever my friends would call up asking me if it is true that there are contrabands entering prison. That it is okay if contrabands are circulating outside but a big no if at all it is brought inside the prison camp. I have an eerie feeling that they have presumed that prisons are areas where saints are bred, where the virtuous can be found, where incorruptibles are housed and therefore anything illegal found outside is anathema once it is introduced inside. Furthermore, penal facilities have veritably shrunk as a consequence of overpopulation.
There was even a kid who asked me why not pack all contrabands and illegal substances then bring it all inside the prison camp so that nothing will circulate in their school and community anymore. Sounds brilliant.
Ideally, prisons should be bereft of anything abusive or excessive. It should project a highly disciplined, managed in a totalitarian manner even, administered properly in accordance to rules and life inside should be regulated and absolutely structured. It should be free from anything that would encourage cruelty. Communal life must partake of a Spartan. Everything is standard, every corner bent in favor of sanity. While serving time, being segregated to family, brutalizes a person, the camp should never be a space devoted to vindictiveness or retribution.
Contrabands like liquor, drugs, deadly weapons, explosives, firearms even money or jewelry, to name a few, should never be a part of the prison community. It must be clean. It must be spotless and unsoiled. Everyone must adhere to a regime, act in accordance with a signal, behave like cadets, and work like monks. The prison community must be devoted to contemplation and everything that surrounds the restricted environment is dedicated to harmony and peace.
But our jails and prisons are not like that in the first place because of congestion. There is defiance as far as spatial management is concerned. Laboratory experiments on rats when lumped and congestion is simulated, the test result would just be as glaring and even fatal. The same can be said on plants and any living thing for that matter. Unless there are changes in criminal justice policy, offenders should never be subjected to a negligent procedure of undergoing slow death through overcrowding. I still believe that the Constitution is clear on this and that the policy of the State is to prevent the imposition of excessive, cruel, degrading and inhuman punishment.
When there is congestion, prison personnel are already in a bind. Their effective strength is diluted. Their institutional focus is unfortunately scattered. There is no concentration anymore. There will be lapses and gaps everywhere. Leniency may be perceived when their functions are stretched to a certain limit. Not even the X-men can perform a competent job given the challenges. No amount of training or heroism can promote a singular act of maintaining a facility whose population has grown into a monstrous figure. There is no Greek mythological god that can squarely address this condition.
Where there is congestion, there is excess, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity in full color. What else can we ask for?
Contrabands? It merely passes through lapses and gaps. It is ingested (and later defecated) by visitors, thrown above the fledging fence, smuggled in by exasperated personnel, flown in by pigeons, whatever. Congestion makes it happen.
Prison administrators are always blamed as culprits. Well, they are really blameworthy if they will not exert extra effort to disclose the congested situation in their facilities. The State however is to be reckoned eventually if despite pleas and protestations by the agency, nothing is being done.
Contraband in prison is merely a fever.
Senator Miriam Santiago correctly introduced a legislative formula through a bill she drafted and called it An Act to Prevent Luxurious Conditions in Prisons. Accordingly, “prison officials shall provide living conditions and opportunities to prisoners within its prison that are not luxurious than those conditions and opportunities the average prisoner would have experienced…”And rightly so, government could not even build additional facilities for its jammed facilities save for superfluous amenities for its numerous inmates who are virtually lumped and literally are heaped one on top of the other. While it has been said and practically enshrined in the Constitution that it is the policy of the State to prevent the imposition of excessive, cruel, degrading and inhuman punishment, the condition in almost all corrective facilities in the country defy hitherto such constitutional policy. To introduce by administration luxurious condition would not only amount to a crime but igniting violence among those who would not be able to obtain it.
It has been noted through a scientific study that encamping 10 persons in a small room would increase the temperature by a degree higher than the prevailing condition. In prison, it is not only 10 or 50 or 100 but thousands are lumped inside a dormitory contributing to gross overcrowding. They are literally living inside a live microwave oven! Without capital outlay, prison administration is left at the mercy of luck to avoid possible conflagration or genocide.
Furthermore, deaths in prison as a result of lung defects is a daily occurrence and may only be regarded by the prison population as part of their travails and consequence of their penalty. Congestion is a cruel manifestation of unabated influx of convicts in a small area intended for their welfare and rehabilitation while serving their time. Living condition in all prison and detention facilities are indeed callous and disregard any standard application of rules.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo described the Philippine penology conditions as “deplorable, inhumane and having substandard conditions.” Philippine Star columnist Domini Torrevilla interjected in her column that “yes, you and I may hate some of these inmates for committing crimes, but they still need to be represented in court and treated like human beings.”
Government could not contain much more so sustain a situation where standards in accommodation and proper handling of prisoners are criterions to be met. Funds are just too limited to appropriate to build more facilities. Donors and contributors from non-government agencies led by Church and the Academe which are basically advocating humane principles are always at the forefront of providing the necessary wherewithal the prison community needs. Without this representative sector, the prison community would have been doomed years ago.
Prisons are never designed to conduct a slow dehumanizing process to exterminate inmates. It is not even contemplated in the basic law of the land. The Bureau of Corrections was never even organized to pursue inhuman practices. The agency is there to promote the safekeeping and rehabilitation of all inmates. But the congested situation poses a challenge which not even volunteer sectors could address. Not even the introduction of new laws unless it is meant to build and expand facilities or reduce penalties and regularly grant clemency more than the courts would issue commitment orders.
The so called No Frills Prison Act is an ideal imposition in a standard prison situation; where inmates are properly assigned in regular cells at normal accommodation rate; where population count does not exceed markedly the level it is designed to house inmates. It is an ideal response to a normal prison condition where anything introduced over and above the requirements would tilt the balance and create abnormalities. But the prison system is nowhere near the standards, nowhere near normal level, nowhere near the criteria for humane subsistence.
If a patient is placed in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital, it is not out of whim that he is brought or simply just to make it appear that he needs extra frills. He is there to make him live longer. If a patient is given a number of expensive medical procedures, it is not even luxurious, although the cost of medicine may considerably point towards that direction, but a way to heal the patient. Similarly, if an industrial fan or an air-conditioning unit has been allowed to be used in the prison community, it is merely to arrest the gradual increase of deaths through punctured lungs by most inmates. Donated resources to build more facilities as living areas for inmates are better than seeing prisoners scattered and sleeping on the ground and pathways.
Television sets and musical instruments, even an influx of visitors and donors reduces the tension of a congested facility, extending further hope and a peaceful condition in the prison community. The prison climate is lightened and unburdened. Without these items and considerations, peace is nowhere and violence the order of the day.
This should not be a regular input in a corrective facility though. It should be tempered and regulated. At most, it should be prohibited even. But government should address the principal culprit on congestion by expanding its facilities first, building more dormitories if not actively grant clemency and releases.
In US Federal States, if the court knows that the facility where a convict would transfer is congested, the sentence is suspended. The judiciary knows that a congested facility would defeat the very purpose of rehabilitating an offender. In other countries, the sentencing procedure is even liberal to the extent that there are more releases than admission creating a balanced prison population level without overcrowding.
In other countries, an inmate occupies a cell, at most two of them. In a congested facility, a cell good for 20 is packed up to 75. An inmate who leaves his sleeping space and desires to pee once through would not have a space to go back to. There are those facilities where prisoners are like spiders splayed all around the available vertical space available in the dormitory. Ironically, prison administration still is confident that those who passed through the rigors once released are rehabilitated and are presumed to be law abiding citizens thereafter.
No Frills Prison furthermore is great and more relevant if prison facilities have met the standards. In the same way, there is no need for an ICU if what is needed is aspirin.
Public shun any attention nay concern for prisoners. Anything that uplifts the welfare of inmates is viewed as preferential treatment. A single perk tasted by a ward is almost seen as heinous. Indeed, for years, the corrective system has been neglected, almost forgotten and considered least in any administrative activity. The prison community in response, seeking to push itself as part of humanity, tried through resourcefulness to remedy the situation. It invented the perpetual calendar, redesigned its sleeping cot, reshaped its gloomy cells and dormitories, rewrote internal rules, remodeled prison climate and a host of other renovation just to keep skin and bones together, including the quest to retain sanity in an otherwise insane congestion.
A legislator made a snide remark that in other countries where those convicted for violation of illegal drugs law receive death penalty while in the Philippines, a drug convict serves time virtually in comfort. The insinuation is that prison should bear all the hallmarks of torture to exact the proper posture. In another news space on the other hand, government slapped charges and relieved ten policemen who allegedly apply the so-called wheel of torture on detainees. One official says that torture must rule; and in another, torture must never be imposed at all.
Let us revisit the correctional system for purposes of clear thinking and better judgment. Throughout the years, the prison community has evolved from a sanitarium type, hospital model facility into an educational campus and simulated community facility. Gone were the days when prisoners are treated as sick persons. They are now, as rehabilitation dictates, students or learners. Gone were those days when an offender was believed to be possessed and therefore must go through the rigid whipping treatment to drive the demon away. Today, inmates are immediately enrolled in school like atmosphere where skills development is the order of the day.
Throughout the years, with skills mounting and overlapping, perks are built from within. Resources were imported into the prison camp for maintenance and use. Technology is tested and applied. Technology has become a part of the system with prison community at the receiving end. Anything that bogs down can now be repaired. Anything that promotes comfort in the free community can now be duplicated. The inmate learner is almost as competent as his counterpart in the free community. He is better prepared to be released into the mainstream of the free community with prospects that he would never commit any infraction at all. He will turn his back on his misdemeanor and would rather lead the life of a law abiding citizen.
But the free community despite the liberal atmosphere is still conservative at heart. Prison administrators who inherited the prison condition along with what has been seen as perks are now questioned and derided. The perks or anything that contains comfort short of insinuating that offenders should be tortured as the principal face of conviction, must be instantly phased out. It is like marrying a woman, who later would turn out as having a body full of tattoo. The relative of the husband, surprised at the body art, wanted that the wife ought to be skinned if only to remove the marks, notwithstanding the pain and agony that go with its removal.
Which must govern what? What should be the primordial concern? Damn if you do, damn if you don’t.
How do we exactly deal with humanity whether incarcerated or not?
It’s common sense. (The only problem there however is that it is not so common.)
A prison facility is designed to house an exact number of populations. That is the ideal. You compress more people into it, more than what the facility can chew, you choke it. In the same manner that a house is a dwelling place constructed according to the number of family members intending to use it. If the facility could no longer contain what is obtaining then it is either, the residents would decline admission or if there is no other way, a restructuring of the house or facility is in order.
New Bilibid Prison complex has an accommodation level good for 10,000 inmates. To date, it has around 22,000 prisoners already. It is already filled to the brim, so to speak. Congestion rule the day. If a simple household is experiencing such a condition, misunderstanding and a host of other confusion would arise. This would serve as the fuse that would ignite trouble. An ordinary household however can easily address this situation by declining further admission or requiring the excess number to leave pronto.
This cannot be done in prison. It cannot disregard a court order on the admission of a prisoner without the threat of contempt. If congestion is incumbent, administrators must be resourceful in addressing it. There are approaches which can still be applied—routinely or out of the box. Additional structures can still be introduced if the concerned has the necessary resources to volunteer. Or, the camp may be loosened on the entry of donation if there is dearth of capital outlay in transporting prisoners in other penal establishments or in building structures to house excessive population.
New Bilibid Prison, specially the maximum security camp, has been unfortunately neglected administratively for years. It is never intentional though neither it is premeditated. There is lack of understanding from those who were given the task of managing the affairs of the prison community and if at all there are attempts, these were diluted by stronger leadership influence yielded by some prisoners with exceptional talents and political connections. Security requirements at times collide with social and welfare demands of the prison community. Prison rules to a large extent reduce the principles of human rights. Remember that the fountainhead of human rights is freedom. Rehabilitation programs could not manifest its genuine applicability because of the ruse created by the tension of security and social strains of the prison camp.
It has been said that NBP has been transformed into a special community than a facility. It is rightly so because government has no imposing resources to control the human factor. The influx of prison admission is like urban migration in its extreme form. In a situation where there is virtually more warm bodies than stale cages, it is the human spirit that yields considerable influence over anything that restricts it. As the saying goes, “Man is not an island.” Include a number of them and lump them all up in a dingy corner, chances are, they would transform it into a paradise in no time at all. They would formulate an environment that could sustain their survival than rely on static nuances of his surroundings. They can simulate life in a commandingly dead or hopeless situation.
While the cryptic peace that is haggled may be suspect and could even inspire a host of reactionary movements by administration by disturbing the harmony of life in the prison community, the potential of its destructive posture can only be unleashed with fatal consequence. There is an idiom that says, “Don’t stir up the hornet’s nest.”
There is just one instance prisoners could not redesign their place notwithstanding their number and talents. It is in changing prison into another. A prison camp no matter how convoluted it is seen from outside or socially fitted from within is still a prison camp.
Gertrude Stein in her poem Sacred Emily wrote “a rose is a rose is a rose.” In the same vein, a prison is a prison is a prison. And that’s it.
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.
“I wanted to give back everything I have to my fellow inmates, they who never had visitors, they who are sick and infirmed, they who are disabled, they who are old already, they who are malnourished. What I have accumulated in my long career in what society believe as crime, I wish to share and if possible spend everything on them, the needy, to them who are referred to as the socially disabled, the prisoners.” Thus spoke, one of public enemy’s dreaded number one gangsters in the early 2000s.
Herbert Colangco, 39, slim of built, soft spoken, youthful looking, without braggadocio, courteous to a fault, is not easy to classify as an offender although if one gets through the transcript of judicial testimonies, he can out rightly be categorized as a monster already, an alien out of this planet, an inhuman and incorrigible felon. In prison, he was a combination of “high risk” and “high profile.” And why not. If police records would be noted, he was the criminal mind behind all daring bank robberies in the country in the first half of 2000s. His gang was so bold and daring that their presence alone literally swept the vaults of all banks in all urban areas nationwide.
“I never had proper education as a child. I never had a chance at all to learn what it takes to read and write. My education was everything the street could offer and it is everything about outsmarting everyone. In my juvenile years, I led small bands of peers outsmarting people in the marketplace, just to make a living, just to make skin and bones stick together. As prime mover however, I never allowed anyone in my group to abuse anybody, much more so permit to hurt or injure even those who are opposed to us. It is not a poster principle for gangsterism but for me, if anyone gets miffed then I am out.”
Law enforcement quickly labeled Colanco group as the principal suspect in every bank robbery everywhere in the countryside. His group was however low key compared to the flamboyance of the dreaded Kuratong Baleleng group of similar persuasion. When this KB group was emaciated through a series of police crackdown, the remaining crew retired back to their province in Mindanao and sought refuge with a budding group headed by Colangco. The merger was called by police intelligence as the birth of the Ozamis Gang. The union of two offensive factions would likewise introduce brutality in the ranks of a subdued and scientifically managed Colanco group. Herbert, on whose surname the group would identify itself, would also be given another reference, “Ampang”, a title given as a label for respect similar to the Ilocano “Apo” or to the Bicolano’s “Manoy.” The differing manner in leading the group with Ampang Colangco insisting on a “no-casualty” policy and the other persuasion that “success includes injuries” eventually weakened the resolve of the gang to pursue its mission. Subsequently, cracks in the solid group would also lead to a series of failures and law enforcement successes in nipping the bud of the gangs. Midway through the 2000s, Ampang Colangco was bagged by law enforcement, charged in court and sentenced accordingly. That literally gave the last nail in the coffin of the so-called Ozamis gang. Remnants of the group, the violent faction, would still wreak havoc on peace and order but the police have the upper hand already. Slowly, the group would be decimated back to zero.
“I have befriended a lot of smart guys during my active years in the gang. I was never one in the first place and I was academically disadvantaged at the start. Hence, I have supported brilliant minds and sent them through scholarship. I have the resources even to extend assistance to principled leaders in some towns. I have nurtured not only friendship but camaraderie, even protection to politicians, military leadership, captains of industry and professionals who in turn would help me start my own commercial ventures above ground. My intention actually is to sustain commerce and from whatever profits or margins to be derived, it will go to charity.”
In prison, he discovered faith. He also realized that in the midst of the prison community are several sectors who are wanting of help—the visitor less, the sick, the physically and mentally disabled, the elderly, hundreds, thousands of them lumped inside the prison camp. He dabbled with programs, sought officers to help him organize a charity movement; implore gangs and its leadership to send their disadvantaged members to his program for nourishment. His business ventures are earning for him millions and these are the resources he would splurge just to help his fledging fellow inmates. It was however an awkward proposition to the prison community which is teeming with intrigues. His effort to his mind may be misinterpreted as power formulation. He sought advice from those in the prison community considered as elders and long timers. From then on, he was properly guided.
“In a small corner of the prison camp, I organized a musical band. I am fond of music. I used to sing. I was actually a frustrated musician before I started to be a gangster. I could revive my interest, draw attention and notice to those who wanted to watch my career in small scale showbiz. I intend to invite the physically disabled to my pocket shows just to have a means for me to replace a makeshift lumber as cane into state of the art aluminum “saklay” or crutches. No sooner paralyzed prisoners would be wheeled to grace my street corner shows. For starters, I would allow the patients to win in games so that I could replace their crude wheel chairs into sparklingly brand-new medical chairs. And because the melody of my weekly shows would draw kibitzers in the prison community, I had the occasion to pursue a feeding program too. That small street corner experimentation would develop into a charity show I would propose as a regular program inspired by the prison leadership.”
Prison intrigues coming from the ranks of various groups seeking attention would be affected by the charity program of Colangco. His shows would be criticized as obnoxious, loud and useless. But countless prisoners are receiving their comeuppance. Not even gangs with its full resources can equate to the resources Colangco was flooding the needy in the prison community. It was seen as a leadership threat, that which might crack open and eventually put demise on the strength of gangs and its hold on its members. Here was a person, seen as Robin Hood, exploiting himself, making himself barren, sacrificing his resources, squeezing his assets dry and sharing it to the prison community and their families.
“I will eventually grow old and in due time would die. I do not wish to be awash with possessions on my death bed. What I have accumulated I wanted to share to those who are disadvantaged and deprived. It is a promise which I never fashioned for my selfish thoughts but precisely as offering to my faith. The universe may have made me bad, so that in the final analysis, I could still save a sector and restore the goodness I crave. I have never wished to be villain for mankind. I only wanted to be of help.”
Colangco was straight face when confronted with the issue of his case on robbing banks. That he was well aware that it was illegal and it was a crime for which he must have to suffer the consequence. He also knew that what he did was a violation of peace and order; and that he ought to pay the price through the loss of freedom and consequent privileges.
“I still maintain a certain purity of purpose. I never allowed anyone, especially ordinary people caught in the cross fire of my activities to get hurt. Once, I learned that a member held up an overseas worker withdrawing a million from a bank, I immediately chastised my crew and forced him to return the money to the victim. Banks are different. You get its money, the next day, the insurance firm replaces it, no one gets hurt. My formula was simple in robbing banks. Overwhelm its security with more armed men and everyone obliges without fire fight. That’s all.”
He is a mainstay in the national penitentiary maximum camp. He is constantly repairing in one corner practicing his timing for a singing number in his show. He is busy designing the stage on which performers will grace their part. He is also checking on his notes and notebook, the resources he must spend so that everyone would be given their due assistance. For him, his every show spells penury for whatever he has saved. He knew that at the end of his singular life, whatever he has possessed would rightfully be enjoyed by the people he wished to have relished it even for once.
He never even dreams of freedom—although he knows that it will come as a blessing. His only desire is for all his resources to be shared evenly to the needy. Here is one wish which would defy criminal proclivity in whatever form.
Former Senator (and Presidential father) Ninoy Aquino when he was imprisoned in a military stockade once remarked, “Eating in gold utensils while incarcerated does not mitigate any pain.” Well, something to that effect. Imprisonment, as it were, is indeed an agonizing episode in a person’s life. And worst, the condition of any custodial facility does not even inspire human rights.
There are incidents however that remarkably dot and create some kind of respite to the drab and monotonous condition of prison life. These are instances when celebrity convicts are admitted into the prison community to serve time. They are a whiff, a breath of fresh air to the prison population. They are the apple in the eyes of gangs, the potential economic saviors among the destitute sector of the incarcerated enclave, the favorite consultants of everyone, whether prisoners or prison officers alike.
They exude a different aura from the standpoint of the prison community; they are a cut above the rest. Their smile seem to be profound; their demeanor exacting and cautious. They are more given to contemplation than exuberance. They are less criminal from the stereotype. They are just simply aloof.
Fellow prisoners flock to them like insects to a fruit. They merit respect and they reciprocate with equal intensity. They have the resources to extend assistance directly to a subservient fellow or indirectly to his family outside. Those inmates around the celebrity would shower their principal with a host of considerations—from massage, to doing laundry, from cooking to securing. The celebrity is treated like nobility and inmates are willing subjects. From the standpoint of the prison community, the celebrity is a hard act to follow but easier to please.
Hence a sector they are, a slim and dim a percentage, imperceptible but quite engrossing. They are the privileged, the silent movers, the thinkers and advisers, magnificently ensconced and highly esteemed. Their friendship is prized. They in turn are accorded with deference by the prison community as a whole, by a fan base of believers. They are treated like very importantly. They are from the ground a recipient of VIP treatment.
Only security feedback would reach administration. That there is an institutional divide comprising of those not treated equally is beyond the pale of analysis. All of the inmates are in the same space, restricted by walls, lumped in a dormitory and compelled to serve time. All are known by their prison numbers and as a necessary consideration, they are all statistic. Nowhere is there a special number, neither there is a special consideration for computing time serve according to rank. Everything revolves around a standard, a customary law known as prison rule and no one is expected to toe the line. Institutionally, there can never be any VIP treatment at all.
But for all intents and purposes, what is glaring in the daily scheme of things in prison is maltreatment. The dormitories, packed exceeding are in a state of building fatigue. It could collapse after a brief tremor. Ventilation could no longer be obtained because of overcrowding. Medical services could barely be delivered, hampered as it were by lack of equipment notwithstanding competent crew of physicians on the roster. These and more. Result on the physique of the inmate is telling. Signs of torture even if not physically abused are expressed in their state of health. And in some respects if one hears that there is special treatment by inmates on a few of their deferred companions conducted, it is as if the correctional system has committed a grievous fault.
The public, the general population, the free community still adhere to the belief that prison should always be a place where maltreatment must be the order of the day.
“Kubol” is a term which has entered the lexicon of criminal justice administration through tolerated practices in the infrastructure complexion of corrective administration. It is a cubicle, hence the term “kubol” contrived by prisoners assigned in a dormitory type facility. Dorms are facilities designed to accommodate a number of prisoners and it is one stretch of a facility with two rows of bed bunks, usually double decker. If inmates have prolonged period to serve in the facility, the dormitory type, usually a carry-over of the barracks used by military and trainees, no longer could serve a positive purpose. Aside from the fact that in prolonged incarceration, privacy sets in.
There is nothing wrong in communal living as long as the period is calibrated to mean for a specific short period, say, on semestral basis. But if it extends further, then abuses are formed, violation of privacy and most of the time, there is gross awareness to the point of contempt that pervades. There will come a time, and this is usually after a few summers, when viciousness and passion would ran high and the threshold for restraint snaps into a murderous rage. Suddenly, the prison community becomes a witness to blood bath and correctional administrators would find themselves groping in the dark.
When privacy is intruded and infringed as when a person is inured to period of gross familiarity there is immediate hostility created and what will ensue would be a series of character wracking attitude like predilection to suspicion, distrust and misgiving. This further translates into collective cynicism, the exact opposite of that climate which corrections fosters on the community. The prison community would just explode into a riotous series of mayhem and turmoil.
Time came when liberality in prison administration dawned. It was also a time when the population would soar to an unmanageable level. Supervision has become terribly difficult. While the population doubled and tripled, the number of prison personnel never took off to reach an effective ratio. It was at this juncture, when prisoners decided to subdivide their dormitories into cubicle. Thus, the “kubol” was born.
Privacy assured, the kubol became an emblem of solitude, a space for contemplation, a guarded place where an inmate or a handful of inmates can retreat into silence. Kubol emplaced, violence was subdued, normalcy restored and sanity suddenly took over. In a community where the average period of one’s stint is 15 years, privacy is the most significant consideration he gets to enjoy and his kubol the most precious temple he is proud to possess.
But there are complaints aired. Kubols in the public perception is also a template for luxury, an expression of excess and an unjust arrangement which moneyed inmates could partake. It has become virtually an issue that bespeaks of ineptitude in prison management, an irregularity in allowing a few to transcend above the usual treatment accorded everyone. It has been translated into a topic, a central dispute, if you may, which prison administrators must squarely answer.
In reality, the kubol is just an ordinary construction arrangement, a mere contraption, which inmates took it upon themselves since the State has no funds to rebuild prison structure into cell blocks. It is the inmates themselves who out of personal security and welfare, that which the State through its correctional system must sustain, would initiate for their own ends. That they are secured equates to the realization of correctional mandate on safekeeping of prisoners.
As time went by, however, some inmates would spend personal resources to improve, at times would extend to the tune of abuse. These can be remedied however by an administrative act of transferring those who out of mishandling the area assignment would ignore common institutional posturing. On the whole, the kubol is just a simple approach to translate unsympathetic dormitory barracks into livable cells or makeshift studios. It is just plain recognition and understanding of the incarcerated humanity on a personal level.
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.