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18th-century prisons

First Posted 01:08:00 11/04/2007

Filed Under: Crime, Prison

MANILA, Philippines -- Bilibid? is actually the New Bilibid prisons, which was built in 1936 through 1939 in Muntinlupa to replace the original Old Bilibid Prisons in Manila, which dated back to the Spanish era. The New Bilibid Prisons was the brainchild of then Justice Secretary Jose Yulo who, scandalized by the conditions at the Old Bilibid Prisons in Azcarraga (today?s Recto Avenue), lobbied for a new jail.

Yulo, together with Gen. Paulino Santos (of today?s General Santos City fame)?as Baldomero Olivera, Yulo?s biographer put it??wanted the convicts to nourish themselves with fresh food and rebuild their character to become useful citizens in surroundings that were to look more like a trade school than a jail.?

We mention the origins of the New Bilibid Prisons to point out the last time a major improvement was undertaken in our national penitentiary system?and that was close to three generations ago. At the time the New Bilibid was built, prisoners there and at the Iwahig Prison Colony also had opportunities for livelihood that have all but dwindled away?the fine hardwood furniture, much-valued in antique stores today, was crafted for government offices, including the presidential palace, by convicts who earned a fair livelihood; and saved the government money, thus enabling government to procure its furniture without enriching private contractors.

We might add that Old Bilibid, New Bilibid and Iwahig all held prisoners that included the most distinguished personages our country has produced, when they were jailed by the Japanese for being in the resistance; and after World War II, on charges of collaborating with the Japanese. In no instance did any of them?and the list ranges from Gen. Vicente Lim and Raul Manglapus during the war, to Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo to Benigno Aquino Sr. and Claro M. Recto after the war?receive special treatment or special cells. Nor did they ask for such favor.

Prison is meant to be a humane, but spartan, place. Instead, as our Saturday feature showed, prison has become a place where the vast majority of prisoners live in squalor and filth, but where the wealthy and well-connected live in comfort, privacy and with every convenience at their disposal. This was never so in Spanish, American, Japanese or even pre-martial law times. It is a distinct innovation, built on the principle that prisoners with financial means can purchase preferential treatment.

Ordinary prisoners don?t begrudge privileged prisoners their luxuries, because the wealthy prisoners justify it by lavishly subsidizing improvements that ought to have been provided by the prison authorities or government. Indeed the real story here is that in many ways, our penal system is managed by the prisoners themselves. Any reporter who has been exposed to city prisons, in particular, knows that the prisoners have their own government and economy managed by prisoner mafias, a situation to which authorities themselves, understaffed and underpaid, turn a blind eye.

Combine this with the reality that it has been decades since prisons throughout the country have been built, and the slowness and unfairness of the justice system which crams the jails full of the poor who, due to our clogged courts, have to wait years for bail hearings and even longer for even a semblance of justice. Add to this the unwillingness of local governments to use their surpluses for jail improvement and a national government whose justice system is more interested in propagandizing for the president than in the administration of justice, and we have what we have: a penal system more primitive and unfair than the horrors chronicled by our patriots at the time of the Revolution.

We have moved not only backward; worse, we have moved to a situation last seen in civilized world in the 18th and 19th centuries, where perks were freely for sale, and humane prison conditions utterly dependent on the ability of prisoners to pay for them. And yet our penal system is no longer supposed to be based on medieval ideas of punishment, but on the more modern ideas of rehabilitation. Until an international outcry against juvenile prisoners being thrown into the same cells as hardened criminals, our society took for granted bestial conditions that the rest of the world only encountered in the piteous tales of Charles Dickens.

We need not just better jails, but fewer prisoners. The overhaul must be complete, but it must begin with the principle that all prisoners, and not just those with money, are entitled to humane treatment in jail.

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