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cardinal tagle

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, abortioncontraception, 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 SpanishFrench and Latin.



prison visit 2

There was this incident which unsettled me no end.  A policeman came up to ask for help regarding his household helper.  He was looking for this woman he entrusted his child with as baby sitter.  I  presumed at that time  the law enforcer knew all along that his helper is related to a prisoner hence, when his helper was nowhere, he already knew where to go—in a prison camp.  But what made his problem complicated was not the absence of his helper but a worrisome situation that the loss came when his child was also nowhere.  It was blood curdling at most.

What the lawman’s hunch turned into an investigative find.  His prey, the house helper, was indeed inside the prison camp visiting an inmate believed to be her husband and with her was a toddler, his child!

Prison officers requested by the law enforcer for assistance quickly moved to verify the information.  Rightly so, the househelper and child were on record on a visitation privilege.  The prison patrol went to the site and accosted the woman and child to the office.  There were no commotion, no drama.  The procedure was conducted in a low key.  The lawman was relaxed in the security office.  There was no hysterics when the lawman saw his child; there was even no trace of anger when the lawman saw the househelper.  It was, as if, the period was just an ordinary market day.  The security officers, sensitive and trained witness this kind of situation, were texting each other messages to telegraph positioning in case emotional fireworks would be displayed on that day.  Luckily, at least for those in the office, there was nothing of that sort.  The lawman rose up from a homey sitting position, thanked the officers, picked up his kid and accosted the helper into his vehicle.

The officers huddled in a corner after the incident.  Versions were offered.  The officer who fetched the house helper volunteered to add a brief interview he conducted.  Accordingly, the house helper was heavy with her child by her inmate husband when she left for the province.  But here comes conjecture.  She may have suffered a miscarriage but there were information that she successfully gave birth but penury drove her to sell her child in her hometown.

She went back to Manila thereafter and sought employment.  In a brief period, she was employed as helper in the household of a lawman.  Here, another speculation was given:  one is that, the helper did not sell her child but brought the infant to Manila were a lawman agreed to adopt the baby.  Another view was that, the helper was contracted by lawman as babysitter for the family’s baby.

What complicated further the situation was that the househelper brought with her the child in her regular visitation course in prison and introduced to her inmate husband that the one year old kid was theirs.  There was blissful period between visiting helper and her inmate husband until one day it would be disturbed by a security call.

The child—believed by the inmate husband as his—would one day be the center of controversy when the real father, or so it seems, would appear before the prison gates to knock at reality.

What a case.  We never knew where to end.  The beginning of the case has no definite start in the first place.





shit happens

One dreary day, after the regular headcount, a keeper submits his report.  However, there is a twist.  One among thousands under his watch is missing.  And so, he takes pain to look for this missing inmate.  He cannot allow his record besmirched much more so for an impending administrative case in the event that the missing ward has finally been recorded as nowhere.  For the security personnel designated as keeper, this is just one of the days he abhorred.  For him this could be something like “shit happens!”


Of course, there is always a happy ending.  After a thorough search, the officer would later be informed that the inmate has been admitted in the prison hospital.  Or, he failed to report back having spent the night with a relative or friend in some dormitories outside of his building.  Well, for the inmate who failed to ask permission and got his custodian into a dizzying plane, a few knuckles on his temple could have spelt also something like being given a plate of shit!


In prison, the issue of missing has despicable angle also.  Aside from accidental slip, aside from “bangungot”, aside from heart attack, there is the matter of absence from the roll.  In this case, the keeper, the patrol and the perimeter guards are haled and investigated for possible lapses and eventually, an administrative charge.  Having been penalized for suspension and serving such penalty, the truth usually would stare administration years later.  Bones and remains of a chopped person would be unearthed in some compost pit within the camp, a victim of internal strife among prisoners.  This is more prevalent than those who would succeed in tunneling through the facility.


For the prison administrator in charge of managing a congested facility, it is not only a matter of shit happening, it is always a case of shit everywhere.


There will always be trouble somewhere.  There will always be misunderstanding and outright confusion.  In a crowded community, one cannot evade being intrigued and getting involved in a quarrel.  For always, there will be those who will impose their will and would impose their influence no matter how trivial it is.  And when this happens, disorder is not far.  And when there is disorder and there is no semblance of control, hell breaks out.


Frustration is written in every alley of the prison camp.  It is decorated not only in a savage way from the facial expression of the denizens; it is marked in every motion where a prisoner wishes to traverse.  All prisoners dream of freedom specially those who have served time at least from the way they were informed.  All of them wanted to be heard and understood.  The phenomenal rise of gangs is born out of this requirement.  Gangs represent the baser instinct, the baser hopes and the baser security of an individual member.


To a large extent, gangs are not only gate keepers but shit keepers as well.




prison hospital

There was this case in the hospital’s Intensive Care ward, a newly installed unit in the prison facility, where patients always died in the same bed, every Sunday morning at 11 am, regardless of their medical condition.

This puzzled the prison doctors and some even thought that it had something to do with a cursed bed or something supernatural.

So the doctors decided to observe the blighted room.  They proceeded to take note the next Sunday morning, positioned themselves across the area,  a few minutes before 11am and nervously waited to see a terrible phenomenon.  Some were holding wooden crosses, prayer books and other holy objects to ward off evil.

And then, there it was, as the clock struck 11, a prison orderly entered the ward, unplugged the life support system so that he could use the vacuum cleaner.


Fr. Sim Roxas, formerly a prison chaplain, was asked by a bereaved family to officiate the necrological services of their loved one at the local cemetery.  While the vessel was being lowered into the ground, a municipal officer approached the priest and asked, “Meron po bang death certificate yan nililibing ninyo?”

Fr. Roxas was surprised because he was merely asked to bless the occasion but as he was looking around for the relatives, he inquired, “Bakit po sir, kelangan ba talaga iyon?”

To which the officer exclaimed, “Natural Father, eh paano kung buhay pa iyan!”


Ted Miraflor was a partisan follower of a former local elective official.  He has proven himself worthy of loyalty.  He was designated as one of the close in staff at the office of the Mayor.

But there was a change in local executive post.  A new Mayor was at the helm.

One day, Ted received a notice of separation from the service.   Shocked, he went to see the Mayor to inquire.  “Sir Mayor, bakit po ninyo ako tinanggal sa trabaho?”

The Mayor was groping for a reason, glancing at his secretary to provide the answer, “Oo nga, hindi ko yata alam iyan…”

Ted asserted, “ Nagtataka nga ako Mayor kasi wala naman akong ginagawa…”

“Ayun!” the Mayor blurted, “alam ko na kung bakit ka natanggal, wala kang ginagawa!”


Prison Assistant Director Reinerio Albano was dragging his boots and his eyebrows almost one.  He was on his way for a security assessment  when I met him.  “Sir,” I inquired, “bakit mukhang mainit ang ulo ninyo?”

Eh, paano ba naman ako hindi magagalit, ang salita ninyo dito puro pabaliktad,” the prison official claimed.  “Isipin mo, sasabihin lang may tama, gagawin pang may amat.  Ang preso, tawag osrep.  Ang pera, rapits.  Parang walang pinag-aralan!” he added.

I asked, “Eh saan po naman kayo papunta sana?”

He quipped, “Sa ob-lo, mag iinspeksyon.”


There was a facility for mentally deranged in the minimum security camp when a visitor who was about to leave found himself stranded.  He went out to have his tires vulcanized but when he came back, all four bolts were nowhere.

A shabbily dressed inmate came to his rescue.  Anong nangyari sa iyo?” he asked.

The man dismissed the weird looking and unkept inmate, “Hindi kita kelangan, sige na lumakad ka na?”

The inmate insisted, “Eh, baka meron naman akong magagawang tulong sa iyo.”

The man straightened up and stood to face the inmate, “O sige nga.  Nawawala ang apat na bolt sa gulong ko kaya hindi ako maka-alis, baka gusto mo akong tulungan maghanap.”

“Ganito na lang brod,” the inmate said, “kumuha ka ng tig-isang bolt sa mga gulong mo at ilagay mo yun para makalakad ka na kagad.”

Surprised at the common sense, “Pare,ang galing mo.  Dapat lumaya ka na, wala ka namang diperensiya na ah!”

The inmate explained, “Sira pa rin ulo ko pero hindi naman ako tanga!”


A young prisoner is in the hospital with two broken legs.  The nurse comes in and tells him that there’s good news and bad news.

The inmate asks for the bad news first.

The nurse says, “Wala ng ibang paraan kundi operahan ka at tanggalin ang dalawang paa mo.”

Then the patient asks for the good news.

The nurse says, “Yang katabi mo gustong bilhin ang bagong rubber shoes mo.”

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