Why our prison system stinks

My column today, December 14, 2014.
For what seemed like the nth time, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima publicly scolded last week officials of the Bureau of Corrections for allegedly allowing high profile inmates at the National Penitentiary—more popularly referred to as Bilibid Prison—certain luxuries and privileges.
This time around, de Lima riled against the presence of a two-storey structure inside the Bilibid Prison supposedly being used as living quarters by a convicted drug lord. The Corrections people insisted that the structure was not being used as living quarters but supposedly as some kind of an activity center by Muslim inmates. The explanation was hilarious because the officials virtually admitted that they allowed inmates to build structures within the government compound. Regardless of the purpose, inmates just cannot be allowed to do as they please while in prison.
We’ve been hearing stories for quite some time now about how powerful inmates such as politicians, scions of wealthy families, and leaders of syndicates are actually the ones running Bilibid Prison. We’ve heard stories about certain high profile inmates being allowed midnight furloughs out of prison - presumably to go home to their posh condominium units or have a leisurely dinner and drinks at some watering hole, or about certain individuals having special quarters complete with air conditioning machines, televisions, laptops, and cellular phones. If I am not mistaken, the quarters are called “kubol” and inmates like the infamous mayor with the bad hairdo from a town in Laguna as well as a former representative from Zamboanga del Sur were found to be enjoying such comforts.
Quite frankly, we are not surprised that such a system is allowed in the Bilibid Prison - or even in other major correctional centers in the country. This is the Philippines and there are just too many social and cultural factors that make possible all kinds of deviations and exceptions for the rich, the famous, and the notorious. Lady justice is not blind, after all; at least not in this country.
First of all, economic power is still absolute power. And while we can all make a good argument for the fact that money cannot buy everything, it can certainly open doors, make the difficult easy, and make the impossible possible. In dire situations such as those prevailing in prison, money may not be the direct currency that is traded or bartered—it can be favors, or goods, or certain advantages which can be made possible when one has the economic resources or political connections. Conversely, money can be used to bring certain types of disadvantages to people who are less cooperative to the “requests” of powerful inmates.
We’re also a very social people and we also happen to value relationships. We build kinships with practically anyone we share space or time with. Thus, we have special bonds with schoolmates, batchmates, dormmates, townmates, workmates, busmates, churchmates, and yes, prisonmates. It is unlikely for jail officials and staff and prisoners not to develop some kind of friendship after years of being cooped up together in the same tight and suffocating place. If we really come to think about it, inmates and jail wardens are both outcasts in society. They live under basically the same conditions even if most jail wardens get to go home to their families and leave the confines of prison when they are off duty. But while they are at work, they are basically like prisoners themselves.
It is also very easy for us Filipinos to empathize with others, particularly those who have met misfortunes in life. We love underdogs - we root for people who are down and out. The joke is that there is not a single offender in any of our jails - everyone in prison in this country is an innocent person who has been accused and convicted wrongly. Our default tendency is to give people the benefit of the doubt, particularly if that person has a credible sob story that rivals the plot of our popular soap operas.
And then, there’s the fact that we do tend to defer to authority figures even if they have feet of clay. This is why most of us disapprove of student protesters who express their political sentiments in ways that embarrass our leaders. A man may be a convicted criminal but he is still addressed as Congressman, Mayor, Sir, or at the least “Boss” in jail. It’s kind of difficult to expect people to say no to a seemingly harmless request such as to look the other way when “Sir” uses a cellular phone in jail. Of course one seemingly harmless request tend to escalate into other requests.
The conditions to build over-familiarity and even mutual trust are all there, particularly in our culture. This is not to say, of course, that nothing can be done to mitigate these factors. I am sure there are already quite a number of safeguards and operating procedures in place; the key is to ensure effective and sustained implementation. Simply put, what should not be allowed should simply not be allowed - no buts and ifs and certainly no exceptions allowed.
In addition to following the standard guidelines, regular rotation of jail wardens must be imposed to reduce the formation of special friendships between inmates and their jailers. The problem is that in places like Bilibid, the officers and staff are given special concessions such as housing facilities within the compound so it is difficult to switch people around. We must also make sure that officials and staff of the Bureau are paid reasonably well so that they are not easily enticed by bribes.
But over and above all else, the most critical area is the training and development of personnel who will man our correctional facilities. The stark naked truth is that criminology is probably the academic course that is most taken for granted by the educational system. It’s just unreasonable to expect jail officials to display certain higher competencies that our educational system has not trained them on. So in a way, the situation in our correctional facilities is not just the problem of the Justice Department. It is everybody’s problem because we all contribute to creating the conditions that make our prison system stink.


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