In donated toga and mortarboard hat, the 542 men sitting stiffly on monobloc chairs looked every inch the proud graduates that they were—no matter that their March 12 graduation program was held inside the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa.
The men are the latest graduates of the Department of Education’s Alternative Learning System (ALS), which gives convicts a chance to overcome illiteracy, finish school up to the secondary level, or acquire livelihood skills through vocational courses.
This is rare good news from the Philippine prison system where, only recently, powerful drug lords and convicts were exposed as living in luxury while still plying their lucrative trade behind bars, obviously in connivance with prison officials.
The depravity of life in prison—where petty criminals languish and serve time longer than their terms simply because they can’t raise bail or hire a lawyer—often results in felons graduating into hardened killers, desperate men who’d do anything to survive the rigors of serving time in a hellhole.
Such a possibility impelled ALS valedictorian Bajunaid Kasim to spend at least four hours a day studying, as it took his mind off things that would have otherwise gotten him in trouble inside the maximum security compound.
Sentenced to life imprisonment for drug-related offenses, Kasim said he took the ALS course to prepare for life outside Bilibid. Because indeed, how many inmates regain freedom only to find themselves shunned by polite society, their history as ex-convicts all but stamped on their forehead? For want of job opportunities, most of these former inmates end up as lackeys or hitmen for crime syndicates, or as street thugs preying on the helpless—a social menace beyond redemption.
The DepEd’s ALS provides a tiny opening, an escape from the vicious downward spiral in which inmates often find themselves trapped. The skills and learning they acquire inside prison are their passport to a fresh start, as these serve as tools with which to build productive lives. Reform and rehabilitation as an aspect of a modern penal system couldn’t be better defined.
To be sure, there have been various ways and programs to provide inmates productive pursuits that would hopefully give them reason to hew to the straight and true. The “dancing inmates” of the Cebu jail easily come to mind.
But the DepEd’s ALS is more notable in that it recognizes how much Filipinos value education and its role in changing lives. Former inmates are better served by that piece of paper that certifies them as the equivalent of high school graduates, or as having completed a vocational course, the one document that employers require before even considering a job applicant.
“It is important to educate the inmates since they were brought to the NBP to be reformed so that when they go out, they can be productive members of society and won’t return to their old ways,” noted ALS officer Eduardo Cabuhat.
Kasim confirmed this observation when he expressed hopes of returning to his home province of Maguindanao as an ALS teacher, especially for out-of-school youth displaced by the armed conflict in southern Philippines.
Education Secretary Armin Luistro, pleased with the progress of the ALS, has discussed with the Bureau of Corrections the possibility of expanding the program into a separate school with its own budget, with inmates comprising the bulk of the teachers.
That suggested bigger budget—some P20 million for a program that would benefit some 1,000 inmates—is certainly lower than the costs of rising criminality, lost productivity and an easily corrupted prison system. In fact, to further strengthen the program, the government can consider incentives to encourage employers to hire former inmates who are also ALS graduates, such as tax incentives for material imports, discounted income tax rates, or a bigger credit line.
And while at it, why not allot a certain number of job slots in government-owned and -operated companies for these inmates who can definitely use a leg up?
As Luistro also noted, these graduates may be considered “teachers” in their own right—for showing everyone that it is always possible for a person to get back on his feet after a fall.
“Dreams and hopes are never lost inside Bilibid,” Luistro said in his speech at the graduation. Aspirations can still “shine even in the darkest moments of our lives.”
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