I have friends serving time in the New Bilibid Prisons (NBP) and Correctional Institution for Women (CIW). Friendships which we forged in the hellholes of the Quezon City Jail. Friends that I still cherish today.
In June 1995, or two and half decades ago, I was accused of a crime I did not commit—a sensationalized crime that kept the media screaming I was the person to be hanged. And in the company of my newfound friends, we built our shattered lives together. For the next seven years of my youthful life (I was just then 20 years old), I spent time with individuals who were considered dregs of society. One was accused of setting fire to his village, one was accused of kidnapping for ransom, one was accused of multiple illegal recruitment, and some others who were accused of various forms of heinous crimes.
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We then knew we were in for the long haul. While we hoped for freedom, we knew that our odds for release were small. The trial process moved slowly. And the media hounded our cases with much curiosity.
The question that ran in our heads was What are we going to do with our time? Should we just rot until our day of freedom, if ever it comes?
I spent time with individuals who were considered dregs of society. One was accused of setting fire to his village, one was accused of kidnapping for ransom, one was accused of multiple illegal recruitment
In 1995, long before the present government embarked on the war on drugs, our jails were already crowded. It was already teeming with idle bodies with nothing to do for the whole day. We were not only deprived of our liberties. We were also stripped of our basic decency and dignity. There was not enough food, clothing, and space. It was a struggle just to find a place to sleep. It was a struggle to barely keep oneself alive. Painfully, many of us succumbed to different types of illness—as simple as manas and rumbo-rumbo—and died.
But my friends and I had other things in mind: we told ourselves we will not let the idiocy of our situation turn us into lowlifes—which we were not. Some of us resolved: Pumasok akong malinis, lalabas akong malinis. A few of us thought we can recreate our lives outside inside the premises of prison.
So despite our horrible situations, we volunteered our services to the jail bureau. The arsonist, once a barangay captain, became the leader of our inmate organization, KapitBisig, helping the warden in keeping peace among the warring gangs. The kidnapper, once a government officer, became the organizer for our Sambayanang Kristiyano, a program that promoted community living in a jail setting. The illegal recruiter, once a singer in Japan, became our cultural organizer, setting up songs like "Hiram na Buhay," which was a hit anti-death penalty song. And many of the other heinous criminals became my students in the very first Quezon City Jail Functional Literacy Class Program, where I was the head teacher. The program later became the model for the Alternative Learning System (ALS) in jails and prisons.
Despite the weight of our legal and emotional problems, and the challenges in our living conditions, we extended help to the Jail Bureau so it can achieve its mandate of preparing inmates for the eventual release as responsible citizens. We shared in the governance of the jail— serving as its force multipliers, its ears and eyes in gathering information, and legs and arms in the delivery of services.
We did this because we have a lot of time to spare and we just want to beat buryong (boredom) that afflicted the idle. We shared the burdens of running the facility because we believe that the benefits of a peaceful facility will eventually redound to us. But most specially, we became active citizens of the prison society with the hope that by showing good behavior, we can demonstrate our innocence and probably deserve a second chance.
I became good friends with them for seven years—together we managed the school, mediated inmate conflicts, fought for inmate welfare, and survived riots and jail disturbances initiated by our more disgruntled members. Together, we celebrated birthdays, new years, and other happy occasions. Together, we commiserated when we missed graduations, weddings, and funerals of our loved ones. Indeed, our friendships were forged in the most extraordinary of circumstances—in the confines of the most crowded jail facility in the world.
I was lucky to be eventually acquitted and declared innocent. Of course, I was wrongly accused. I picked the broken pieces of my life and moved on. Inspired by this profound experience, I became a scholar in criminal justice and dedicated my life as an advocate for penal reforms.
Many of my friends met a different fate. The arsonist and the kidnapper are now in NBP, the illegal recruiter is now in CIW, and the rest of my heinous criminal students are now in various penal facilities. Some of my other friends had eventually succumbed to various illness—one of my fellow teachers in the literacy program had died of breast cancer.
But many are still in there. I had the opportunity to contact and visit them during my research and advocacy works. In some instances, they helped in my research—documenting life inside the national penitentiaries. They informed me about the intricate network of the gang system, of the different programs that potentially work to reform the inmates, of the different ways to speed up applications in parole, and many other issues of correctional management. Indeed, they are my good friends in the efforts to improve our criminal justice and penal systems.
But most importantly, they are still there fighting. They are still there working for the benefits of other inmates. The arsonist has been a longtime peace marshal, in charge of the security of the volunteers. The kidnapper has been working as a prison aide for the church, in charge of catechism and mass services. And the illegal recruiter is still very active in coordinating the non-governmental organizations providing services to the inmates in the CIW. The rest of my former students accused of heinous crimes had various engagements: working in the livelihood programs, working as cell leaders, and volunteering as trustees of the prison management.
They are now weak and aging. Twenty-five years of their time, expended as punishment, had taken a toll. The pains of imprisonment—separation from loved ones, living in overcrowded cells, insecurities of sharing cells with emotionally burdened inmates, had taken the light off their eyes.
Yet they still dream of freedom. They still yearn to be with their families one day. They still hope to be given another chance.
These are the nameless common tao that could have benefitted in the Good Conduct Time Allowance Law of 2013. They are not fictitious stories but rather they are flesh and blood whose records can be easily verified in the prison. They are stories that had been muted because of the sensationalized portrayal of the Antonio Sanchez case.
The pains of imprisonment—separation from loved ones, living in overcrowded cells, insecurities of sharing cells with emotionally burdened inmates, had taken the light off their eyes.
I am not arguing that all these people need to be released instantly. Admittedly, a few of them committed unspeakable crimes and they deserved to be punished. I have read the transcripts of their cases and I empathize with the family of their victims—justice needs to be served. A few of them probably needs to serve 40 years, the full length of reclusion perpetua, just to appease the family of the victims.
But for most of these long-term servers, they need to have their stories of redemption be heard. Indeed, in many of my discussions with them, they have expressed remorse. They fully accept their fate. And they wish to atone for their mistakes by actively engaging in rehabilitation programs of the prison. They earnestly avoid engaging in violence, in drug use and trade, in sneaking of contrabands because that would entail suspension of the monthly awarding of the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA). They actively enroll in ALS and TESDA programs, learning massage, floor construction, electronic repairs, etc, so that they can convince the Monitoring, Screening and Evaluation Committee (MSEC) that they deserve the monthly awarding of the Time Allowance for Studying, Teaching and Mentoring (TASTM). They return to jails and prisons, after the facility had been declared physically unlivable during occurrences of flood and fire, so they could be deemed worthy of Special Time Allotment for Loyalty (STAL).
These are the nameless people who once committed grave mistakes but are mightily trying to improve themselves through the window of opportunity offered by this law. These are the majority of people, many poor and powerless, who were prodded by this law to become law abiding citizens while incarcerated.
Thus, this law, instead of being scrapped due to the misapplication in one case, should be strengthened. This law, instead of being characterized as soft in crime, should be celebrated as a Filipino demonstration of justice tempered with mercy.
Indeed, I have a number of friends in the national penitentiaries, labelled as criminals, the same way that I was once portrayed as the person to be hanged. I have friends, who like me, if given a second chance, can contribute meaningfully to society.
Raymund Narag is currently an Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Southern Illinois University. He served as consultant to the DOJ, BuCor and Supreme Court. Prior to the life in the academe, he was once accused of murder of a fellow student at the University of the Philippines in a fraternity related case. After his stay in Quezon City Jail, he wrote a book about his experiences which became the basis of getting a Fulbright Scholarship in the United States. Dr. Narag regularly goes to the Philippines to conduct research and training of criminal justice practitioners.
Photos courtesy of the author, except banner photo.