C: Colm Meaney. Prisoners playing basketball

“I was a prisoner and you visited me…”

Life in a Filipino jail is not a pleasant experience, unless you belong to the rich; then, though your movements may be somewhat curtailed by four walls, you might as well be living in The Ritz, luxuries on all sides: air-conditioning (vital in this climate), food fit for a king, sleeping quarters fit for a Cleopatra, and so forth. In fact, so farcical is the Philippine situation at times, that in 2001, a congressman who was serving two life sentences for rape, ran for another term and was duly elected. But if you belong with the vast majority who are poor, living and dining conditions are definitely Spartan. And especially with the draconian policies of our current callous president and his ill-named and ill-fated “war on drugs”, the numbers in the jails here have mushroomed, with serious over-crowding; as have the numbers being buried in the cemeteries, having being summarily executed by either the police or “hit squads”, both groups entirely indifferent to the rule of law and completely free from any legal repercussions. Welcome to The Wild Far East.

The provincial jail of Negros Oriental is five minutes’ walk from our monastery in Dumaguete, the capital of that province. One of the diocesan priests is chaplain there, but we celebrate the Eucharist (Mass) there twice a month. I was the celebrant a few times during my 8 years in Dumaguete, but most of the time I spent in the hills of the diocese.The attendance at the Mass in the jail would be about 80 or 90 men and about a dozen women; that would be a small minority of the total number of inmates. The Mass is celebrated in a hall, open on all sides, minimum security and also to allow any breeze to cool the place. Some of the prisoners are accused of killing, others are behind bars for drug-related offences. Most are waiting for the result of their initial hearings and probably expect to be transferred to the national penitentiary in Manila.  But they will have a long wait, as the legal system here moves at a very slow pace.

Many of the inmates are in their 20s or 30s, and almost all of the women are within that age bracket. On one occasion I noticed an elderly couple sitting near the front. I wondered if they were brother and sister or spouses. I asked one of the altar servers later (also an inmate). He said that they were, in fact, a married couple, and so I presumed that the wife’s visit had coincided with the Eucharist, but I was mistaken. The husband was indeed the prisoner, but his wife was not simply visiting him. Some time earlier, her husband had suffered a stroke in the jail. With no resources for hospital treatment, he had made only a partial recovery in the prison, but still needed constant assistance. His wife made a request to the warden: that she would live inside the jail so as to be able to care constantly for her husband, and the warden had acquiesced. When I heard this I was amazed. I mean, usually people try to escape from prison; now here was someone volunteering to go to jail! I thought of those ancient vows: “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do us part”.

On that same island of Negros, but this time in the province of Occidental, a notorious miscarriage of justice took place between 1983/4, when 3 priests and 6 male catechists were accused of the murder of a mayor in the city of Kabankalan. Two of the priests were Columbans, Niall O’Brien (Irish) and Brian Gore (Australian); the third was a local priest. The trumped-up charges were ludicrous, seeing that Niall O’Brien was at that very time involved in setting up what he called “zones of peace”, because the island of Negros had experienced some terrible massacres – to be fair, coming from both sides, military and rebels. To accuse this peace-loving man of plotting the killing of anyone was the height of silliness; yet the Marcos regime persisted. Bishop Eamon Casey, as head of Trocaire, visited Bacolod (the city of their incarceration), to show his support; Charlie Bird was there, reporting for RTE. In the end, the Negros Nine, employed the services of the famous human rights lawyer Diokno. He tore to shreds the tardy government side. At his wits’ end, embattled president Marcos offered a presidential pardon. The Nine refused; they didn’t want to be pardoned for something they had not done. In the end, the judge handed down a judgment of innocence, and the Nine left jail as free men. This, in fact, may have been one of the final straws to break the camel’s back of the dictatorial regime: by February 1986, Marcos called snap elections, lost them badly, and subsequently fled the country – eventually to die in Hawaii.

 The strong stance of the Negros Nine, in the face of the presidential pardon, is reminiscent of the resolute stance of the plucky St. Paul when he, and his companion Silas, were illegally imprisoned (Acts: 16: 35-39). Hearing that the city magistrates had decided that they could be freed, he replied indignantly: ““They beat us publicly without a trial and threw us into prison, even though we are Roman citizens. And now do they want to send us away secretly? Absolutely not! Let them come themselves and escort us out!” (v37).

On another island, Mindanao (Southern Philippines), one of my colleagues had started a ministry in the jail in the city of Iligan. We had a paid layman, Victor, who would visit the jail regularly and try to deal with some of the inmates’ cases, working with lawyers to assist in the legal processing. National Prison Awareness Sunday was approaching. I spoke with Victor, and he spoke with the jail warden, who was a very decent man. We arranged that some of the prisoners would come to our church on Prison Awareness Sunday and participate in the five Masses (morning and afternoon). To prepare, I went to the jail for a rehearsal. I went into the cell to speak with the prisoners who had been chosen to participate in the Masses. Even though I wasn’t a prisoner, when the cell-door closed behind me, I had an almost visceral reaction. You really feel trapped in that claustrophobic setting: no way out unless the key turns again in the lock. But I knew the prisoners, so I was almost at ease! We decided what would happen at the five Sunday Masses. They would do the singing at each Mass (one of them had composed some songs) and instead of the usual homily, I would “interview” one or another of them, asking them about life in the jail, the good and the bad sides, what they had learned, and so on. Whatever the wretched, hope-eroding conditions in the jail, I wished to highlight anything positive. And indeed, there were some gems of human kindness & creative thinking amidst the dross of the predictable abuse, corruption & apathy.

Actually, there are many other groups involved in ministering to the inmates in jails across the country. They organize projects which are really win-win: therapy for the prisoners to help reduce or redirect any violent impulses, and, at the same time, providing some much-needed income for the prisoners. Two of the popular activities are (1) cross-stitch and (2) Christmas lanterns. Both products demand close attention to detail and the making of them becomes a calm-inducing, therapeutic activity. In Dumaguete, with the jail so near to our monastery, we actively sponsor the jail-lanterns every December. They are exhibited in the carpark and we encourage church-goers to buy them, and we buy some and display them in the monastery.

On the day itself (Prison Awareness Sunday), the jail van arrived at the monastery, with 4 prisoners and just one guard. We had rehearsed (roughly, not word-for-word) what we would say: on the day, they were tremendous! This was a rare opportunity for them to speak, and their various testimonies were very touching. As usual, many had been drawn into the world of drugs, either through hopeless addiction or as an alleviation from poverty. And now they are behind bars for the next 20 years of their short lives. The Masses were either in English or Cebuano (the language of the Southern Philippines), but at all the Masses I “interviewed” the prisoner in Cebuano. The atmosphere was kind-of electric as I introduced the singer and the speakers as prisoners. They spoke truly from the heart about life in the jail, the bad sides as well as the good. The former would be gangs, violence, corruption among the guards, delays regarding their cases, and the like. The latter would be the sense of camaraderie among themselves, the stories of a life changing for the better, and other hope inducing incidents.

They took part in the 6am & 7.30am Masses (and later in the afternoon). The next Mass was at 10am. I asked the four prisoners if they would like to watch TV during the interval. With one voice, they said that they would prefer to sit at the front door of the monastery and just watch life passing by. It was such a novelty for them, having been accustomed in the jail, every day for years, to seeing the same thing: four walls, the bars, the exercise yard. Just to see people strolling or cycling along, children running about, houses, trees, the blue sky – so many ordinary things we take for granted – this was like a breath of fresh air for them.

C: Colm Meaney. Prisoner signing at mass


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