On the first day of the week, sunlight filtered through the grilled window panes into the prison cell called Selda Uno. On its corner stood Macmac, 23, one of the pre-trialed detainees in the Manila City Jail.
In front of Selda Uno's door was a jail officer instructing inmates to fall in line. It was a typical activity that marked the beginning of Macmac’s daily routine, but the date on the calendar said May 13 - Election Day. As he stood in the cue of detainees, the young man noted to himself that this was the first time he was going to vote.
Escorted by an officer from Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), Macmac and the other inmates entered the chapel of the Manila City Jail. Confused and excited as a fresh voter, he shuffled his feet towards the security check post and searched his name in the Commission on Election´s list of registered voters. He admitted that he was not familiar with many of the candidates this year - much less with their track records and platforms.
Macmac could have included 12 names in his ballot, but he only shaded five. He cast his vote for two actors he used to see on television at home with his family, two women candidates whose surnames mirrored the political stints of their husband and father and a male aspirant whose name reminded him of their local leader. He said he did not want his votes to be counted for an unknown candidate that he only chose based on the required number of positions. For him, fewer names meant less disappointments.
“Kapag wala na akong kilala, hindi na ako boboto, hindi na tayo sigurado kapag ganoon,” Macmac said.
Macmac was an out-of-school youth and a breadwinner of a father and three siblings. Before his arrest him, he drove a passenger tricycle. In July 2018, while he was traversing his usual route along Tondo, Manila, police arrested him for possession of illegal drugs.
Standing in line and recalling the events of his arrest, Macmac blamed the faulty system for allowing corruption and greed to bring innocent people behind bars.
Macmac said he was ordered to serve a seven-month sentence in the Manila City Jail but it was already May 2019, marking his eleventh month in prison. He was banking on the results of a drug test to prove him innocent and finalize his release, but the results were taking too long, causing him to waste away in jail.
For now, stuck in a waiting game with the days rolling by one after another, Macmac often daydreamed of his freedom. “Kunyari hihiling ako sa isang senador, pangarap ko bigyan kami ng magandang buhay. Bigyan kami ng trabahong marangal. Iyon lang,” he mused.
Just a face of the statistics
Macmac is one of the 43,774 registered Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDL) voters in the country.
Issued in 2010, House Bill No. 3817 or “Persons Deprived of Liberty Act of 2014” mandated the State to secure the Filipino citizens’ rights to suffrage, including persons deprived of liberty - whether accused or sentenced.
In compliance with the bill, Comelec and BJMP have set up various voting facilities intended for PDL voters every election. This year, there were 241 jails with special polling precincts where detainee voters could walk in and cast their votes.
Pre-detained voters from jail facilities with less than 50 registered voters were transported by the BJMP to their off-site voting precincts wherein they were provided with a PDL fast lane. This year, there were 115 voting facilities accredited by Comelec to cater to the off-site voting of inmates, an alternative to the walk-in system where the ballots were issued and collected at the jails, prisons or detention facilities before being carted of to the election precincts.
The Manila City Jail, where Macmac was detained, had a total of 238 registered voters, making it the sixth largest PDL voting community in National Capital Region along with Las Pinas, Makati and Muntinlupa.
Despite the discrepancies between the PDLs’ voters’ list and the actual number of voters in some polling places on May 13, the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) lauded the BJMP for the immediate turn-over of PDL ballots to their respective polling places.
“The most important thing concerning this election is to make sure that the ballots will be safely transported from the precincts to the jails and back to the precincts again. That is our priority,” BJMP Spokesperson Xavier Solado said in Filipino.
However, one of the problems that still needed to be addressed was the steady decline of PDL voters turnout. In 2013, the turnout rate was 86%. This year, it slumped to a disappointing 79%.
LENTE noted that one of the glaring reasons for the dismal state of the detainee voting program was due to the PDL´s lack of information regarding the candidates and their rights as voters.
Macmac´s cellmate in Selda Uno, 45-year-old Marlon was also accused of possessing illegal drugs at the time of his arrest and has been in Manila City Jail since November 2018. He said he did not know that he was eligible for voting until the Election Day itself. That morning, he was simply called by the jail officer to proceed to their special polling center inside the detention facility.
“Nagulat na lang ako tinawag po yung pangalan ko...pagtingin ko andun yung picture ko. Pangalawang boto ko palang kasi ito sa buong buhay ko, hindi naman dapat ako boboto,” Marlon said.
Having only reached Grade 1, Marlon didn’t know how to read and write. He was assisted by a jail officer who gave him the corresponding number of the candidate that he would mention so that he could count and shade the ballot by himself.
Marlon also admitted he didn’t know most of the names written on his ballot and believed that trying to know all of them was just a hassle to his everyday worries in prison. Voting, for him, was only an added chore.
But this year, he voted anyway with high hopes for the future.
“Yung ano sa bansa parang ayusin natin dapat…kasi iyang mga iyan may mga pamilya rin iyan. Masakit din sa kanila na mawalan ng mga anak, mawalan ng trabaho kaya yung mahihirap… Mas maganda yung tulungan natin sila hanggat maaga para maiwas sila sa mga bisyo, sa mga ganyang bagay sa mga pagnanakaw,” said Marlon.
Aside from the PDLs’ lack of awareness on suffrage rights and candidate information, security concerns in the far-flung provinces of the country likewise contributed to the low voting turnout.
“If makikita ng mga kasamahan namin na it will be too risky on the part of the personnel and for the part of the voting PDL, we would rather choose na hindi na lang talaga,” said BJMP Spokesperson Saldo.
Daraga, Albay, and Cotabato City were declared under Comelec’s control due to the anticipated election turmoil and violence in those areas.
Despite all these hindrances, detainees were still highly encouraged to participate during elections because their votes served as a lifeline to the free society and a voice to an almost deaf culture that disregarded reformation and second chances, said LENTE.
“Itong koneksyon na ito ay mahalaga para mapanatili ang positibong pananaw na may kinabukasan pa na naghihintay para sa kanila sa labas,” the group added
Upon his return to Selda Uno, Macmac noticed that there was still light streaming through the prison bars of his cell. With purplish blue indelible ink staining one of his fingers, his scrawny hands fiddled across the documents that he would need upon the approval of his release. There was hope yet, he believed. Perhaps the newly elected will do a better job than the previous set of officials.
For many Filipinos, voting was simply one of the social responsibilities they had to fulfill as citizens of the Philippines. But for pre-trial detainees like Macmac, whose youth and innocence were shattered after becoming prey to poverty, injustices and corruption, a vote is a ray of hope to gain the family he once lost and an opportunity to let the warmth enter not just in the dingy prison cells – but rather, into the familiar comforts of his home.