On August 8, 2005, I became an official Fulbright Scholar. I traveled to New York City to undergo a four day pre-academic orientation on the US graduate educational system. Then I enrolled in Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, for a two year Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice. I shall study the mechanics of comparative criminal justice system, that is, the workings of the law enforcements, courts and corrections in different countries of the world.
I was chosen as one of the ten Filipino Fulbrighters this year on the account, nay strength, of my previous history. I had a profound “professional” experience which warranted the award. And this experience is considered to be a potential contributory to improve our country’s criminal justice system.
I was once considered a criminal. I was wrongly accused of a heinous crime I did not commit. I was charged with murder, two counts of frustrated murder and three counts of attempted murder in a fraternity related case in December, 1994. I was pursued by the National Bureau of Investigation, prosecuted in court and detained in Quezon City Jail for six years, nine months and four days, pending the duration of the trial.
I underwent the horrors of detention life. Together with my fellow accused, we were made to live in a room that could ideally accommodate 10 inmates but actually had more than a hundred bodies in it. We were made to subsist in a food allowance of P35 a day, which could barely sustain our flesh. Five of my fellow inmates die every month due to diseases, suffocation and emaciated conditions.
And this horror is compounded by the responses of the different actors in the penal system. There developed structures within that made life even more miserable for the lowly inmates–inmates could be subjected to punishments if they break the jail’s social code; there is an economic divide which made slaves out of the poor inmates, and a culture of repression where every inmate is forced to simply accept the harsh realities and to complain may mean a loss of one’s life or limbs.
But far from being bitter about my experience, I made use of my time productively in jail. I organized and taught in the literacy program, I spearheaded the inmate organization towards reformatory goals and enrolled myself in a diploma program offered by the University of the Philippines Distance Education. And believing that I was an academician in the wrong place, I studied the mechanics of jail life– I recorded in my journal the power
struggles among the inmate leaders and gangs; I took notes on the intricacies of inmate-management relations; and captured on my camera vivid scenes, like an inmate subjected to a disciplinary action called “takal”. Being a co-implementor of the programs, I also saw the constraints in resources and challenges in the attitude of the different criminal justice actors. And I reflect on those little details: of why inmates escape, of why riots occur, of why inmates come back in jail, of why educational programs fail, etc. I furiously wrote essays, poems and short stories and submitted these to national dailies hoping that they may have interest in publishing it.
These I did with the conviction that someday, when I will be a free man again, I am going to write about the plight of the thousand detainees languishing in our jails. I believe then, that there must be a divine reason, why an innocent being like me had to undergo such travails. I consoled myself with the thought, that perhaps, I shall be the spokesperson of the downtrodden and the forgotten.
Thus, even while in jail, I prepared myself to the rigors of academic life–that my incarceration is a unique method of research gathering, called “pakikipamuhay.” And that the subjects, my fellow inmates with whom I toil everyday, are the rich supplier of concrete and unaltered data. For I believe, the best proof of innocence is my unbridled quest for knowledge.
Indeed, I am innocent. Evidence established in court declared I was not in the scene of the crime, that I was never part of the fracas. Of course, I was wrongly accused. On February 28, 2002, after billeting in jail for almost seven years, I was a free man.
Immediately upon release, I boldly presented myself to all concerned agencies which have a stake in the criminal justice system. I told them–I had been a living witness to something profound, a survivor in a social malady that has long been neglected. Please here ye, so it may not happen again.
There are people who hear voices in the wilderness.
The Supreme Court, through the Honorable Chief Justice, who had been envisioning a free and impartial judiciary, took me in. I was made a consultant on penal affairs. It was to be a partnership: a chief judicial officer long wanting to effect reforms and a former inmate, making sense of his demise. I shall make a case study on Quezon City Jail, my sweet home for seven years, and document what afflicts the penal system. This shall be one of the bases in the wide ranging Action Program for Judicial Reforms.
On May 10, 2005, the Supreme Court, with funding assistance from the United Nations Development Program, published my book, “Freedom and Death Inside the City Jail.” There I courageously divulged everything I knew about jail life, shaking off the fear that crept and lingered in my heart during those periods of detention. I described how the inadequacy of government resources, deficiency in manpower and facilities and the lack of reformation programs, coupled with the slow disposition of cases and the inefficiency of data gathering by the police, resulted in a “unique” penal system. I documented images of a wet market or talipapa inside the jail, of cells constructed like houses in a squatter’s area, of a family with little children doing their everyday chores, of a jail officer working as a padrino to a gang, etc. In his foreword, Hon. Chief Justice Hilario Davide described the book as “truly an eye opener.”
Thus started my career in the field of criminal justice.
My humble presentations and pleadings for the plight of the inmates brought me everywhere. Indeed, God had made me a spokesperson of people behind bars. And one of those who heard my story is the cultural attaché of the US embassy, who introduced me to the Fulbright scholarship program.
It is a scholarship which God awarded me for faithfully serving HIM.
I shall be a Filipino Fulbrighter tall and proud. I shall carry with me in a different shore the prayers of my fellow inmates so that I may be guided in my studies. I shall devour all the knowledge I could possibly get so that one day, when I come back home, I could offer solutions to our country’s many woes. I shall be in the company of scholars, with my seven year data neatly preserved, to prove the world, that everything is a learning experience, if given the proper perspective.
For when I was branded a criminal, it was the beginning of my scholarship. I shall not fail.