Surprise visit, non-surprising finds

This is my column for today, December 16, 2014.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima conducted a surprise visit at the Bilibid Prison yesterday.  She had been riling about conditions at the prison for the longest time. She even scolded Bureau of Corrections officials last week for allowing the construction of a two-story structure inside the compound for the private use of inmates.  An irate De Lima finally swooped down with dozens of agents from the National Bureau of Investigation at Bilibid yesterday and came up with substantial proof that, indeed, certain inmates were enjoying privileges and luxuries disallowed of convicted criminals.  Among those discovered were a bathtub, air conditioning units, drug paraphernalia, closed circuit television and telecommunication gadgets.
“Someone will pay,” the Justice Secretary seethed.
I truly am amazed at our ability to be surprised over things like what the Justice Secretary discovered yesterday at the national penitentiary.
Seriously, folks, did we really think the powerful people inside prison languish in untold misery devoid of certain luxuries? Did we really believe the rich and powerful inside prison would not try to use their power and influence to get access to certain privileges?  We already know that inmates who are scions of the rich and the famous eat food that is delivered by their families, or by hired caterers, on a daily basis.  It really does stand to reason that they would also try to bring in certain luxuries such as appliances and offer to pay for electricity consumption.  And lest we forget, this is a country where influence and money are powerful currencies.
But now that de Lima has ordered a clampdown, of course the airconditioning machines, television sets, DVD players, laptops and cellular phones, etc., will disappear.  But, and this is a big but, only momentarily—only for the duration while everyone’s eyes are trained on the correctional system.  A few months from now, when things have cooled down, the liberties will be restored.  That’s the way things work in this country.
If de Lima and everyone else truly want our correctional system to operate like those in the United States, we must acknowledge two important considerations.  First, it will require systemic interventions and programs that will target social and cultural factors.  Second, we will need to pour huge resources into the system.  Our prison systems currently have budgets that will not allow inmates to live decently.  This is why correctional facilities accept donations as well as volunteers.  If we want to enforce laws stringently, then government will just have to step in and be responsible for everything including spiritual, medical, and even educational welfare of inmates.
Yes, things are not as simple as they seem.  In my column last Sunday, I wrote about some of the social and cultural factors that contribute to the seeming laxity that permeates our correctional facilities.  We’re generally forgiving and trusting as a people and we do have certain values that require us to treat marginalized people such as convicts with a certain degree of kindness and compassion.  We also do tend to defer to people in authority or those with economic or political power even if they are convicted criminals; they may be wearing orange uniforms with a huge letter P on them, but that doesn’t stop people from still referring to them as “Sir” or at least “Boss.”
I’m not sure it’s necessarily a sad development that more powerful people are ending up inside prison.  On one hand, it is disconcerting that a number of the supposed influentials in this country are being involved in dastardly acts; but on the other hand, it does say something about the effectiveness of our justice system when more people in power are unable to escape the long arms of the law.
But above all, I wish to reiterate that we do have a serious problem with the way we train the people that man our correctional facilities.  Criminology, which is the feeder course for policemen and jail guards, is not exactly the most attractive course for people with superior mental capabilities.  The people responsible for our educational system should really put in place more stringent standards for our criminology courses. 
As an aside, someone did ask me why I seem to have some first hand information on the system.  In the interest of disclosure, I do have relatives who work in the correctional system.  Up until the last five years, I used to spend some weekends at the National Penitentiary at Bilibid.  No, not inside the prison compound—but within the perimeter.  The Bilibid Prison is actually composed of hectares of land and the various facilities for inmates are spread across the wide area.  The recognizable castle-like white structure that is associated with the prison and most often used for movies and television shows is a very small part of the whole compound. But all around the compound are housing facilities for employees of the National Penitentiary; there are actually a couple of residential villages for private individuals within the perimeter, the more upscale one appropriately named Katarungan (Justice) Village.  Up until recently, the National Penitentiary area was similar in ambiance to the University of the Philippines in Diliman - quiet and expansive, with a lot of huge old trees and areas for sports and exercise.  We used to like going there to picnic or just to breathe in fresh air.  Unfortunately, the area had suddenly become overtaken by squatters and large parts of the compound have been carved to give way to the new highway that connects Daang Hari to the South Luzon Expressway.


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