An afternoon at the New Bilibid Prison
The most surprising reaction to my column last Sunday, in which I recounted the subhuman conditions of our jails, came from an ex-convict who had served his 20-year sentence. He reminded me of a handwritten note he gave me during my visit as a sitting member of the Supreme Court at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City over a decade ago.
A gathering of convicts. The Supreme Court’s security team had advised me to decline the invitation to visit the NBP. However, I decided to accept it after attending a Mass in which the Gospel reading was Matthew 25:31-46—about the Final Judgment, about our Lord asking whether His disciples visited Him when He was in prison. I told myself, better to risk the ire of the inmates than to risk the ire of the Lord!
And so, one sunny afternoon, I motored to Muntinlupa—the first and, as far as I know, the only incumbent member of the highest court of the land to set foot on this notorious home of criminals.
I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer size of the penitentiary. Imposing, high-walled and barbed-wired was the building housing the maximum-security inmates. Around this concrete behemoth was a vast tract of land planted with fruit trees and shrubs.
I was ushered to a makeshift “auditorium” on the greenery outside the forbidding building where some 500 inmates were seated. They broke into thunderous applause while gawking at their visitor. Their prison band played “Mabuhay” as I entered, and the Philippine National Anthem to begin the convocation. A solemn invocation soon followed.
I was genuinely entertained by the talent show they had prepared, especially by a comedy skit about life in jail. Too, some 20 inmates enlivened the program with folk dances and hip-hop.
Accompanied by their lively band, they mimicked Frank Sinatra, Joni James and Celine Dion.
At the end, they asked me to speak. I began by asking how many of them I had personally judged. About 30 sheepishly raised their hands, to the whistles of the rest. Then I cautiously asked how many of them felt they had been wrongly sentenced. To my great relief, I saw no raised hand.
I spoke boldly of hope. I said that iron bars may restrict their movements and may subject them to ostracism and ridicule, and that nonetheless, they should not hate the world and lose their faith.
I explained in Filipino that almost everyone in the world is in some kind of prison: “Iba’t iba po ang mga kulungan. Dito po sa Muntinlupa, rehas na bakal ang kulungan. Ang mas mahirap na kulungan ay ang kulungan ng kaisipan tulad ng mga luko-luko at kulang-kulang; kulungan ng katawan tulad ng mga lumpo; at kulungan ng tiyak na kamatayan tulad ng mga may terminal cancer.
“Ang mga kapansanang ito ay higit mahirap harapin. Walang gamut para sa kulang-kulang at sa cancer. Samantalang ang mga nasa loob ng rehas na bakal ay mayroon laging pag-asa, sapagka’t may taning ang kanilang kulungan. At maaari pang mabawasan ang sentencia sa pagpapakita ng mabuting asal at pagreporma.”
Those imprisoned behind bars, I said, have real hope because one day after serving their sentences, they would be freed. In fact, with good behavior, their penalties could be commuted, or they could even be pardoned. But those imprisoned by greed, by feeble minds, by incurable illness, or by lame bodies could be condemned to pain and suffering all their lives.
Difficult questions. As I ended my speech, the inmates gave me a standing ovation. Some of them handed me handwritten letters.
One of them gave me a note in Filipino which I now translate to English: “Isn’t it true that all the commandments of the Lord can be summed up in one sentence, ‘Love God and love your fellow beings’? Why then did you have to consign me to prison? Contrast this with the way our Church treats sinners. After confessing my sins, the priest merely counseled me, then asked me to pray the rosary and forgave me. Why didn’t you just follow my confessor’s example? Why did you have to jail me?”
It was late already, and I didn’t have the time to read his note.
But his letter now begs me to answer his decade-old questions. I will begin with Matthew 25, the Gospel reading that inspired me to visit the NBP. Here, the Lord was judging His people, separating the sheep from the goats, placing “the sheep on His right” and “the goats on His left.” Those who refused to give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned, He condemned to “eternal punishment” and those who did, He promised “eternal life.”
I believe that just as there are human and physical laws, there are also spiritual laws. Just as there are consequences for the violation of human and physical laws, there are penalties for the violation of God’s laws.
For example, civil laws protect the sanctity of contracts, and a party who breaks them can be held liable for damages; one who injures another violates criminal laws and is jailed as a consequence. So, too, a violation of the laws of physics impels consequences; hence, when one jumps out of a window, one falls to the ground in accordance with the law of gravity.
Similarly, spiritual laws operate on our spirit whether we like it or not. When we transgress the Lord’s commandments, our spirit suffers the consequences by being damned in eternity. Just as there are reparations for violation of human and physical laws, there is also salvation from our sins, by repentance, restitution and reformation—the three Rs of salvation.
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