Flaunting a privilege

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

I am one with everybody else in expressing outrage over former Batangas governor Antonio Leviste’s repeated caper out of the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa City. Leviste is supposed to be serving out a six-to-12-year sentence for fatally shooting a long-time friend and should be languishing at the national penitentiary like most other convicted criminals. Based on his body language at the time of the arrest, it was apparent that it was not the first time the guy had been playing hooky with his prison guards. He looked too comfortable and too careless, indicating that he was used to being seen in the area.

Perhaps he did it on a more regular basis; who knows, he probably slept in his condominium unit in Makati every single night?

Leviste’s demeanor during the hearing the other day also showcased exactly what many people found objectionable in the whole thing. Leviste acted almost nonchalantly; sure, he was apologetic at times, but he didn’t seem bothered by the fact that he was spinning yarn and was barely concealing the fact that even he himself found his story ridiculous. Justice Secretary Laila de Lima’s reaction summed up my reaction: “Tell it to the marines!”

Of course the prison guards and the officials at the NBP knew of Leviste’s field trips to the city. While it is true that there are too many exit points around the Bilibid area (the NBP is actually near several villages inside the compound, including the upscale Katarungan Village which is just next to Ayala Alabang, for crying out loud), security is not that lax particularly around the buildings where inmates reside.

Leviste makes it appear that he played cat and mouse with the guards, or that he did some Jason Bourne-like subterfuge tactics to get in and out of the prison. Nice try, really. But aside from the fact that he cannot pass for a nimble Matt Damon, nobody is buying that story because there is a simpler, far more plausible, and certainly a whole lot less complicated story: He was too comfortable with everyone in the NBP and he was allowed far too many privileges.

How Leviste was able to do ingratiate himself to the guards and to the whole NBP hierarchy is a story everyone is familiar with. He bought goodwill with his money! He bribed everyone—whether directly or indirectly—to look the other way. It’s the same tactic the Sanchezes, the Webbs, the Gos, the Larranagas, the Smiths and everyone else with money and power in this country employed so that their convicted scions and family members get to enjoy a life of relative comfort even while serving a jail sentence. Quite frankly, I am amazed that we are still surprised that such a set-up happens within our jail system.

Some people make a big to-do with the fact that the rich people who are in jail do not seem to be suffering a life of abject suffering and deprivation. I didn’t realize that was the whole point of our penal system; if it were, we might as well ship convicts to the North Pole. There is a reason why the terms “rehabilitation” and “correction” are used in relation to jails.

And then there were those who dared to make comparisons between our system and that of the more advanced democracies such as the United States where all inmates are supposed to be treated the same way. What rubbish. First of all, there is no great need for inmates in countries like the United States to seek slightly better conditions because the conditions of the jails there are relatively comfortable—inmates are not packed together in cells like sardines, there are basic utilities, and their rights are safeguarded. Second, the rich, the powerful and the corrupt are the same breed everywhere—bribery and corruption are just as rampant in the jails of other countries. Proof that economic power is absolute power, really.

I hope that before people start spewing verbal diarrhea, they actually visit the NBP and see for themselves the conditions there. I have been at the NBP many times and I can honestly say that conditions are almost subhuman.

Which is not to say that Leviste’s sojourns are justified. Like I said, I am just as outraged as everybody else. But I think it is important to make distinctions and to avoid blanket generalizations.

What really made me livid was the fact that Leviste openly flaunted privileges granted to him because of the fact that he is more than 70 years old. What is really appalling about the whole surreal chain of events is that Leviste abused privileges simply because he had the means to do so.

Thus, I find the blanket condemnation of the set-up at the national penitentiary where living out arrangements is granted to inmates who are more than 70 years old over the top. It is important to make this distinction because a number of people renowned for shooting-from-the-hip commentary have been frothing in the mouth lambasting everyone and everything related to the national penitentiary, particularly the living-out arrangement extended to inmates who are over 70 years old.

We are still a humane society and surely we can afford to treat inmates who are senior citizens with a little more compassion. Obviously a number of disadvantages come with age such as increased vulnerability to certain diseases and lower tolerance to harsh conditions. A living-out arrangement means that the inmate is given a little more consideration in terms of mobility within the confines of the penitentiary. Leviste obviously was caught outside of the penitentiary without the necessary clearance so he violated the terms of his living-out arrangement.

The whole issue has acquired added complication because the head honcho of the Bureau of Corrections, the government agency that has oversight functions over the NBP, happens to be a good friend and shooting buddy of the President. People are keeping a close watch on whether the President will sack his friend Ernesto Diokno in keeping with his much-trumpeted allegiance to trudge the straight and narrow path. The fact that people are trundling out this yarn about giving people due process is suspect given the fact that the same courtesy was not given to others such as in the case of weather bureau chief Dr. Prisco Nilo who was unceremoniously sacked from his post in August last year.

Will heads really roll this time around? It’s a given that lesser heads will have to be sacrificed. But the more important question that begs an answer is whether this controversy will effectively stop the shenanigans at the NBP. My guess is that it will—but only for some time. Eventually, things will go back to the old setup because the problem is far more complicated than the current mess.


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