Surviving a prison term

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014


THE detention cell, with its three walls and its roof made of concrete, wasn’t that hot even during the hottest days. Perhaps it helped that the fourth wall of the cell was made of iron bars that allowed the air to freely pass through. Or that the cell wasn’t that crowded even if around 50 inmates stayed there.

That was in 1987, when the population of prisoners at the old Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center (BBRC) was still manageable. At that time, each of the ten (was it 11?) prison cells euphemistically called “Brigada” was crowded—-but definitely not very.

My routine was forced upon me by the circumstance inside the jail. During visiting days, we would wake up at dawn to clean the cell. Water would be splashed on the cell floor and powdered soap spread evenly. We would walk around in one line, dragging coconut husks with our feet, after which the floor was dried.

Before breakfast, we would line up to the kitchen—a wooden shack near the basketball court—to get our ration of corn grits cooked in a large container, a used oil barrel cut in half. Our share of the viand, usually consisting of fish or pork broth, was brought to the cell.

During non-visiting days, we would while away our time sitting on the concrete floor talking or just staring silently at the wall. A few would join the gamblers around the mahjong tables in the lobby. There was no TV set but an inmate or two had cassette radios tuned to FM stations.

Prisoners would perk up during visiting hours, welcoming relatives and friends into the cell. That was a source of envy for those without visitors, turning some of them into a withdrawn mess described in Cebuano as “naburyong.”

Our cell had a “kobol,” a makeshift structure walled with woven straw sacks that had a bed, owned by the cell’s “mayor,” who allowed its use by couples that needed privacy.

Hearing the bed make a funny noise and seeing the straw wall shake was a source of amusement for us.

We were allowed to go out to the compound’s vacant spaces, including the basketball court, in the late afternoons. At around 6 p.m. the buzzer would sound for the “bilang.” We would head to our cells, sit in lines of five inmates and wait for the jail guards. When they arrive, we would count off and our number noted.

An inmate would then lead the ritual of saying the holy rosary, after which we would spend time talking before going to sleep. Some prisoners had lawanit boards given by a non-government organization to protect them from the cold cement. I didn’t have that but used instead a buri mat.

Going to sleep early in the night was difficult because the noise inside the jail would only die down at around midnight. It would be back starting at around 3 a.m. In jail, I learned to take a bath between midnight to early dawn because the lone comfort room/bathroom wasn’t usually busy then.

I adjusted easily to the routine in jail. What I found difficult to adjust to was the lack of freedom. It hounded me every time I had a glimpse of the outside world.

Across the street fronting BBRC was the vacant grassy land that was the old Lahug airport. The road and the airport were partly visible through the iron bars of the jail gates. Seeing passing vehicles on the street and people roaming the airport only heightened the “loneliness.”

I read somewhere about Sen. Antonio Trillanes giving advice to his colleagues on how to survive a prison term. “Colleagues” refers to Sens. Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., who could be arrested anytime soon for their plunder cases.

I won’t compare my short stint in BBRC for a rebellion case with what Enrile, Estrada and Revilla will soon experience. Prison conditions will surely be better for the three senators. But what one feels when one is deprived of one’s freedom is the same for everyone.

It gnawed at me so that when I was finally released on bail after around three months, I thought I was walking on air.

(khanwens@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on June 18, 2014.

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