Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Going to jail

I VISITED the Davao City Jail over 30 years ago on an Ateneo de Davao High School exposure trip, when the jail housed just a few hundred inmates. I remember how a thick cloud of dust from the unpaved road swallowed our convoy of jeepneys and coated the extra T-shirt I had wrapped around my head.

Last month, I returned with Irene Sagrado-Tabada, the head of the Archdiocesan Commission on Prison Welfare (ACPW).

In coordination with the jail personnel, she and other ACPW volunteers serve inmates and their families with spiritual, educational, health, livelihood and sports programs in a holistic approach to personal development.

At the gate of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) compound, visitors lined up with containers of food to share with inmates.

The BJMP has three facilities: the Main Jail for men; the Annex for the sick and elderly; and the Ray of Hope Village, with ten Gawad Kalinga constructed pastel-colored duplex units for women.

As we entered the Main Jail, we were surrounded by men in yellow T-shirts. At over six times its capacity, it houses over 2,800 inmates in 40 cells.

Three new cells are being built, but the inmate population is increasing.

I was struck by the lack of tension in the prison despite the crowding and confinement.

It could have been just a gathering at a barangay gym, though it’s not. Contributing to the atmosphere of normalcy was the familiar and friendly way the inmates, BJMP officers, and Irene related to each other.

About 75% of all inmates face drugs charges. Those who had been re-arrested after a stint in jail spoke of their challenges when they were released, especially in finding work.

Employers often refuse to hire those who have been in jail.

Under the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, the sentence for selling dangerous drugs is life imprisonment.

The sentence for possession of a dangerous drug ranges from 12 years to life imprisonment, but if drug possession is at a social gathering or meeting, or in proximate company of at least two persons, life imprisonment applies.

Crimes with the penalty of life imprisonment are usually non-bailable, so the accused are detained for the duration of their trial.

From officers at the Hall of Justice I learned that over 4,000 drugs cases are pending in Davao City before only two Regional Trial Courts, resulting in a very heavy case load for judges, court staff, prosecutors and public defenders.

Drugs trials involve a minimum of six witnesses. At most one witness is presented and cross-examined at a hearing. Most scheduled hearings are reset, due to the absence of the scheduled witness or, less often, the prosecutor, defense counsel or judge.

Hearings are often about 6 months apart. Many inmates charged with drugs offenses spend 8 or more years in the Davao City Jail while their cases progress.

I was aware that the courts were overwhelmed by drugs cases and that the penalties were severe, but it took seeing hundreds of men detained on drugs charges to make this information real to me. Children grow up without their fathers, the bread winners.

If the court decision is a guilty verdict, the inmate is transferred to the Davao Prison and Penal Farm in Davao del Norte to serve the remainder of his sentence.

If the court dismisses the case or acquits the accused, the inmate is released. He may have lost touch with his family and often has difficulty finding work. An inmate found guilty can be released if the duration of detention is at least equal to the sentence.

This happened to a man who recently requested ACPW for bus fare home to Bato, Leyte, where he had lost 16 family members in Typhoon Yolanda. Irene introduced us to the Jail OIC, Sr. Insp. Ian Glenn Ocmen.

In his early 40s, Sr. Insp. Ocmen was a seminarian before he attended the Philippine National Police Academy. He also obtained a Master’s degree in Theology, writing a reflection entitled, “The Jail is my Parish.”

Ocmen’s dream for released inmates is a halfway house where they can prepare for and adjust to life in the world outside and be helped in becoming productive members of society.

A program for released inmates would complement activities that are already being conducted inside the jail by the BJMP, ACPW, and other groups, including religious services of different faiths, sports activities, and seminars on the culture of peace.

Over 150 inmates attend literacy and DepEd Alternative Learning System (ALS) classes given by inmates and volunteers. This year, the jail had its highest passing rate of 87 percent for the DepEd equivalency exam. Of the 51 test-takers, 43 qualified as equivalent to elementary or high school graduates.

ACPW coordinates with the BJMP to organize jail visits to raise public awareness of the challenges that inmates face both within the jail and upon release, believing that prisoners deserve a second chance in life.

That chance will come from those outside the prison walls. They pointed out that while on the cross Jesus welcomed a criminal into heaven.

ACPW is organizing a concert by Bukas Palad Music Ministry to raise public awareness and support for jail inmates on September 17 at 7 p.m. at Martin Hall of Ateneo de Davao University. The Manila-based choir sang during Pope Francis’s visit.

Tickets are available at several parish offices, St. Paul’s at SM Ecoland, Paulines at Bolton and Gift of Grace. For further information see ACPWofDavao on Facebook or contact Irene Tabada at 0917-700-2547/0943-853-4623. (Nina R. Ingle)

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