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.