Yes, it’s a play on the words “human rights” but even human rights advocates sometimes overlook the plight of some 112,000 of them in the Philippines, kept out of sight and, therefore, out of mind.
I’m referring to those incarcerated in our jails and detention centers, in some of the most inhuman conditions that will break the spirit even of the most hardened criminals. The figure of 112,000 comes from the International Centre for Prison Studies, and the number for the Philippines was dated back to 2014. Given the current administration’s war on drugs, the numbers would have soared over the last one and a half years.
Ah, some of you may have said, but these are criminals so what did you expect, a five-star hotel?
I’d answer: basic decency. After all, there are VIP convicts who will get, well, VIP treatment, from air-conditioned rooms to wine, women and song.
What’s most shocking about our prisoners is that according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, two-thirds of the prisoners are in pretrial detention while another 10-15 percent are still being tried. In total, up to 90 percent of our prisoners are still in various phases of the judicial process, or its lack thereof. They are unconvicted prisoners.
There aren’t too many statistics in a new book, “Human Wrongs.” Instead, you have haunting photographs by Rick Rocamora with texts from Sheila Coronel and Abdiel Dan Elijah Fajardo. Some of the photographs are now on exhibit in UP Diliman: this week at Palma Hall (College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, also known as AS Building), and next week at Malcolm Hall (College of Law).
Rick got involved with the plight of prisoners when, some six years ago, he was asked by former Supreme Court associate justice Roberto Abad to document overcrowding in Metro Manila’s detention centers. Since then he has expanded his coverage of prisons to areas outside of Metro Manila.
I was fortunate to have been able to talk to Rick at the exhibit and get the backstories, some of which were heartbreaking. He told me about attending the trial of one person who was imprisoned for three years before the case was finally dismissed. He had stolen a mobile phone and the judge asked if it was right to still sentence the defendant after three years in jail.
Rick said there were worst cases of detention, stretching up to 15 years.
People do time for crimes they may never have committed, in conditions that can’t be captured even by the term “hellish.” There was a photograph of a cell that said it all with fishnet hammocks hanging from the ceiling for prisoners to sleep in. The ones with beds were not that much luckier, their feet sticking out of the beds that are shared with others … so the feet are enmeshed too in fishnets hanging from the ceiling.
More than overcrowding and a daily food budget of P50 per prisoner, there is the issue of wasted lives. Not just of the accused but of their families. Rick talked about children having to drop out of school because the breadwinner was in jail.
The world has noticed, even if we have not, photographs of prisoners arrested in the war on drugs making it into newspapers, magazines, and even books, with the usual metaphor of being “packed like sardines.”
Rick’s photographs, all in black and white, are even more powerful than the colored ones that have been circulated internationally. He said people are distracted when looking at colored photographs. Black and white photographs can freeze moments when you need to convey an emotion, or emotions.
The most touching photograph on exhibit was that of a father, lying down on a mat, cradling an infant. It was a conjugal visit.
Another photograph shows a mother visiting her son, clutching his hands in grief. I wondered what stage of the judicial process he was in.
There are smiling faces, which might lead people, especially non-Filipinos, to say: “Oh, happiest people in the world, even in jail. How resilient!” But a good psychologist will tell you smiles are deceptive. We smile when we’re nervous and anxious. We smile when we’re emotionally numbed, which happens when we’re constantly being assaulted.
Rick’s photographs remind us to read people by looking into their eyes. In “Human Wrongs,” the eyes stare out into the distance, but lack focus. There is no horizon, no hope.
What jails say about the nation
“Human Wrongs” starts out with a quotation from Nelson Mandela, himself imprisoned for many years: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
The photographs, without captions, paint an ugly picture of where we are today. To even dare to argue that these are criminals (and many, I have to repeat, have not even been convicted) and therefore undeserving of better treatment, reflects how we are losing our humanity.
We are talking about a broken justice system, of clogged court dockets and delayed justice. The jails themselves are problematic. A few are under the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, which is under the Philippine National Police, somewhat more professional than other prisons that might be under the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Corrections or local governments, subject to the whims of local officials. And of course, politicians don’t get votes by advocating for better prison conditions.
Back to Rick’s photographs, I was struck by the number of shots of lingering, or acquired faith. Representatives of different faiths do minister to the prisoners and it wouldn’t be surprising if conversion and “born-again” rates are high. Robin Padilla, serving time for illegal possession of firearms before he was pardoned, found renewal in Islam.
But I wonder. For every conversion you have many more who become bitter, who lose all forms of faith,including faith in people. I think of those unjustly incarcerated on some trumped-up charge, becoming hardened.
I also had a most disturbing thought: Is an extrajudicial killing more “merciful” with instant death simply because you’re suspected of using or pushing drugs, or does jail, despite its infernal conditions, still offer hope?
I want to think that prisons are neglected because the public does not know what’s happening. The entire penal system is so invisible, except when there are scandals. Rick gives another side of humanity, or what’s left of humanity in the jails, through his photographs and, in his afterword, talks too about the frustrations of prison wardens and staff, operating on the tiniest budgets.
Nothing should be considered “mild” in jails. There were so many photographs of skin diseases, of boils and carbuncles. Of the emaciated, maybe from a lack of food, maybe from drugs, maybe from both. You destroy the human spirit when you allow physical ailments, no matter how small, to fester and rot.
It’s a terrible metaphor for a nation where human wrongs are so very overwhelming that we end up thinking of them as normal.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.