DIOMEDES, a prisoner at the Leyte Regional Prison in Abuyog, Leyte, couldn’t find a better way to express his happiness except through singing after hearing the good news that their maximum security compound will turn into a “school ground” come June 4.

Already on his mid-fifties, Diomedes will join the first batch of 63 inmates-turned-students who will attend in the first semester of the two-year senior high school program of the Department of Education (DepEd) through the initiative of Leyte Division officials and other stakeholders.

“I am thanking everyone for giving us the opportunity to enter senior high,” Diomedes said in vernacular before belting the popular Christian song “Lead me Lord”, which, according to him, will serve as their guide when the new school year opens next month.

“I know God has a purpose why we’re here. I hope and I pray that you will continue your studies for the good future of your families. Your children are waiting outside, and like us, we hope you can give a good life to them when time comes that you will be set free from here,” Edgar Tenasas, assistant schools division superintendent in Leyte, told inmates during the formal orientation on Senior High School Leyte Regional Prison class program on Friday, May 25.

Tenasas, who is the brain behind the program, acknowledged the all-around support of Leyte Schools Division Superintendent Ronelo Al Firmo, Leyte 3rd Congressional District Representative Vicente Veloso and other stakeholders.

“The good news is Cong. Veloso has allocated P26.7 million for the construction of six classrooms two-story building, a big gymnasium, a library and computer laboratory inside the prison grounds,” said Tenasas.

The Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) will also come sometimes this June for a visit and find out what support can they extend to LRP with the limited budget they have this time, he added.

The senior high class inside the penal colony will serve as a “special class” of the nearby Hampipila National High School in Abuyog since the Leyte Division cannot create a new secondary school immediately due to documentary preparations.

Tenasas, who was accompanied by Education Program Supervisor for Araling Panlipunan-Juan Mitra, said their ultimate plan for this program is they want the prisoners to be equipped with life skills which they can use when they will be reintegrated to the society particularly in today’s technologically-driven society.

“My dream is that you will be virtual workers, working in computers companies from being an encoder to transcriptionist and other related jobs,” said Tenasas, calling the 63 inmates as the “chosen few”.

He added that working in computers will also help them adjust to the world outside as there are still people who find it difficult to accept former prisoners in the workplaces.

“We’re giving opportunities to you, and we’re looking forward that you’re not going to waste it, too. You will like it here because a student life is also a good one,” said Tenasas while hinting that in the future Higher Education Institution may come in and offer a program for a college degree.

“I don’t know how we can pay back. Let’s show that we deserve this, thus we’ll show to them that we are always obedient to the rules and regulations... that we are united for the betterment of everybody,” Abuyog Penal Superintendent Geraldo Aro urged the inmates.

Aro added that he remained thankful to Leyte education officials that the program has materialized so quickly from its inception during the Alternative Learning System (ALS) graduation which Tenasas attended last April 30.

“I would like to believe that it is a blessing. They were heaven sent. We knew that when it comes to government, the budget always fell short. Nevertheless, there are always people who are willing to help,” said Aro.

Like Firmo and Tenasas, Aro said that they are after the good future of the inmates when they will be eventually released and integrated to the free society.

Aro assured the inmates that they would earn additional 15 days good conduct time allowance per month if they would maintain their good standing in their classes.

Orlando Cabantoc, school head of Hampipila National High School, also called on the inmates to take pride of being recipients of the new program, saying they will be heading for a better future.

“Starting today, you are part of our school. This is because your uniform will also carry the same logo of our school,” he said while reminding them to act just like what is normally expected from a student inside a classroom: show respect, perform assigned tasks, no absences, no cheating, and no bullying.

“Let’s turn our classroom into a class home,” he added.

According to Cabantoc, the class will be divided into two sections, each comprising 31 students and 32 students. One among the methods employed in the delivery of instruction will be a “seminar-type” sessions from various resource speakers.

While saying that he was also surprised of the program, Cabantoc believed that these are all parts of “God’s plan” for them to have another “chance, choice, change” just like when they were still outside the prison walls.

The inmates will attend their classes in a temporary learning spaces from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, and with a recess time.

In between their studies, they will also hold regular monthly culmination activities with the help of the supervisors and school heads in the Abuyog South District teachers as part of their community extension service.

Jeffrey Pontillas, the Senior High School coordinator of Hampipila National High School, also expressed his excitement of being one of the teachers inside the prison facility.

"This program is a big help to them. When they will be freed, they would bring them life skills,” added Correction Officer II Edgar Loyola.

Erase the stigma

Tenasas recalled that his “point of interest” why he is pushing for the realization of the program is the case of one teacher who got imprisoned and when he was released he applied for a teaching job.

He was hired for three days and got fired on the fourth day due to a petition filed by parents on the grounds that he was an ex-convict.

According to Tenasas, the society is not yet ready to give ex-convict equal opportunity with the rest of the members of the labor force.

So why not prepare our persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) for a job that will never require face to face encounter, a worker in the virtual community over the internet, he asked.

“We should end this concept of ‘ex-convict’. Why can’t we give them a second chance without being stigmatized, discriminated?” Tenasas added.

Meanwhile, Gwen, 32, a third-year criminology student from Cebu who was convicted for drug charges, said he is thankful to Leyte education officials for coming up with their senior high school program.

Along with other inmates who went to school, Gwen also acted as an assistant teacher inside the facility for ALS, another educational program of Leyte Division inside the correctional facility.

“In 2013, we started the Basic Literacy Program. We started the Accreditation and Equivalency Program in 2015. We now have roughly 200 to 250 students under ALS, and our enrollment still continues,” said Jake Laurente, ALS teacher inside the prison camp.

He also lauded the new senior high program at the Leyte Regional Prison “in order for these inmates to continue what they have started in ALS.”

Established in 1973, the 861.66 -hectared Leyte Regional Prison in Mahagna village in Abuyog, located some 80 kilometers from the region's capital Tacloban City is home to more than 1, 800 convicts.