(this was an earlier blog entry, circa October 2009, which I feel deserves to be resurrected in the present context.)
How next door to happiness lives sorrow
- R. Kelly
I saw an indie film last week (I wrote about it separately in my newspaper column) which had some scene taken inside a prison compound. I've also been following a show, Locked Up Abroad at the National Geographic Channel, where people narrate the circumstances of their landing in jail in a foreign country. Last Monday's episode was shot in the Laguna provincial jail even as the story was supposed to be set in Bali, Indonesia. The inmates were even talking in Filipino. I suppose the NatGeo people thought their first-world audience would not be able to tell the difference between Bahasa and Tagalog.
I digress. I am especially attentive of jails because I've actually been in one -- at the men's prison facility of the Quezon City Police Department. It's quite near Edsa, at the foot of the Kamuning flyover, on the right side if you are headed south.
February 2005. I was a freshman at the UP College of Law. My legal ethics teacher broke the class up into groups. My group was tasked to explore inmates' access to legal advice. See, inmates in city jails are just charged but not yet convicted. They were on trial or awaiting verdict. They either had no money for bail or were locked up for non-bailable offenses. The statistics are lost on me now but I know that some of the men there could be free, albeit temporarily, for a few thousand pesos...if only their families could raise the amount. The same story applies even to those who had been wrongly accused. I mean, how were we to know?
The men suffer the squalid conditions prisons in third-world countries are known for. There are too many people in too few square inches of space. It is not an exaggeration to say that these guys take turns sleeping, or else they would all have to do it standing up. The inmates subsist on very spartan meals.
Maybe to provide some comfort, the compound has specific sections for specific gangs, usually determined by the inmates' province of origin. Regionalism is nowhere as alive as it is here. There are attempts to make the place livable. There was a basketball court where inmates pass the time. Some quarters also have sari-sari stores. The enterprising ones sell coffee,sugar, laundry powder,biscuits. Talk about underground commerce.
And the smell! It is a potent mixture of grime and sweat and human waste and garbage and enclosure. Of course, one tries not to cover one's nose – lest one offend the men. Shirtless and tattooed and menacing and so dangerously close,they could have done anything to Nikki (my groupmate) and me.
Yup, Nikki and I were right there inside the prison, not just looking into it. We roamed the cells, with only two prison guards to make sure we are not touched nor taken hostage by the inmates. I was deathly afraid of this possibility and I tried to calm myself by thinking these guys may not be as desperate as they would be if they were convicted already. Still, I stayed close to the policeman. The men followed us with their eyes; Nikki and I tried not to meet them. It was an all-male compound. What else could they be thinking?
We were led upstairs. More prisoners, I expected, crowded into less spacious quarters. But no, on the third (or was it fourth) floor of the compound, one can actually feel the wind on one's face. There were railings, yes, but they could also pass for windows. There were cots, folding beds. Orocan drawers to organize the inmates' clothes and personal effects. Electric fans. Television sets.
None of the people on the privileged floor were Filipinos. They were Chinese, charged with trafficking drugs, who did not even speak English (or so they claimed).
As everywhere, some prisoners are more imprisoned than others at the Quezon City Jail.
I think about this experience now and I cringe at how I could have taken it all so nonchalantly at the time. (Nikki was even giggling because the officer whom we interviewed was named Colonel Panti.) Maybe because I was evaluating the experience as nothing more than a means to make the grade. How shall we present all this to the class? What medium should our group use? What ethical issues may be raised? Would Ma'am Jardaleza be impressed or has she heard it all before?
I know. I am guilty of belated reaction. That in itself is an ethical question. Where has my social conscience been for the past four and a half years? Why have I kept silent?
The truth is, I might have kept these memories carefully tucked away in a corner of my brain. It is, after all, an inconvenient knowledge; it is easier to refuse to let them haunt me. I probably would not have remembered had I not seen those scenes on tv and in the film.
And I realize that now that I am in media, through this blog and the more traditional newspaper, I actually have a voice. I now wonder whether writing abut these things can actually make a difference. To the deplorable jail conditions. To the inclination to lock up an innocent man just to be able to say a case is closed. To the snail-paced procedures in our legal system, where one day or one week does not mean much to lawyers and judges but mean the world to the inmates' families. To the disparity in living conditions between the haves and the have nots, even in a controlled facility such as prison.
It is a curse to be born poor and ignorant in this country. But the greater curse is to feel so strongly about certain things and be scared that one day that passion is going to be extinguished by the acceptance that the evils you rile against are just so formidable. So formidable that you give up.