By GINO ESTELLA
Days after my visit to Camp Bagong Diwa, a stunning thought came to my mind as to why these political detainees remain cooped up in jail cells. In jail cells, up on the third or fourth floor of buildings, with cold concrete floors for beds, where they sleep for months up to years. The mere existence of prisons–at least in the Philippines–is neither for the reform nor repentance of criminals, rather, they are in there to die.
While many anthropological texts believe prisons were manifestations of mankind’s progression from capital punishment to societal reclusion, the case for the Philippines is that the accused who are detained and with ongoing cases are already practically condemned without due process.
To clarify, jails do not serve as detainment centers for those convicted–that’s what prisons are for. Jails keep those serving short sentences and those with ongoing trial. Prisons keep the convicted for the term of their sentence.
Not so long ago, the Batangas Provincial Jail held a “Flores de Druglord,” making a mockery of alleged drug pushers by parading them around town, and telling people not to be like them. Many were indeed involved in drug-related activities, and many were also not yet convicted.
As I walked the halls of the female “dorm” of the Taguig City Jail, it did not take a moment until I noticed the disturbing writing on the walls. Detainees were made to “repent,” with signs saying “I am here because I could not escape myself,” or “I will repent for crimes in here, away from them.”
It is unsettling to note that not only people condemn the accused before their case’s conclusion, jails as well, have joined in on the “fun.”
The political detainees were not there because they needed to repent for their crimes. They were in there because the government did not want them to speak louder than they usually do. Political detainees are behind bars because they dared to go against the status quo.
The jails and prisons are to keep the criminal away from society. Perhaps that is why the past administration intended to keep political detainees inside–to keep them away from making changes.
KARAPATAN calls the cases of the political detainees “criminalized” cases. Charges against them were made criminal, and thus the state refuses to admit the existence of political prisoners in the Philippines.
Of over 500 political prisoners in the Philippines, I can count with my hand the few that have had their cases closed. Convicted or not, it is a terrible injustice for them to undergo the incredibly slow “justice” process.
From my jail visit to political detainees, I found it saddening to hear about the stories of state neglect within the prison.
It is disturbing to hear that the late political detainee Eduardo Serrano was right outside the jail’s “infirmary” when he had cardiac arrest.
It is sad to hear that Miradel Torres was kept for weeks on end before she was allowed to receive medical care as she was bleeding from her pregnancy, and after her son’s birth, she was separated from him.
I fear for the lives of the political detainees in the Batangas Provincial Jail and other jails, when they were under heat for fighting for the rights of their fellow detainees, or when they exposed the rotten conditions within their jail cells.
Sharon Cabusao, the recently-freed political detainee once talked about the subpar conditions within jail. Decent food was a luxury, and healthcare was more of something that people do not talk about anymore because of the lack of it.
I realized that within these cells are stories of millions of detainees, who were jailed whether for political, criminal or other reasons. They tell of people whose activism was met with handcuffs, and protest met with grave threats. As they languish in jail, they have shown that the politics have not ceased behind bars.
However, the political detainee is still an activist. Sharon said they fought for an increased food allowance, healthcare for their fellow detainee, and even a right to sleep outside the cell during the hot summer months.
It is a long process, but the detainees know their rights and they have campaigned for them in the past. The things they do inside are no different from what they do beyond the cell walls.
Now, while they have achieved these comforts within jail, it still stands: they are not supposed to be there.
The political detainee is almost like being dead. They do not see their families, they stagnate in small concrete boxes they call “living” space, and for long, they are forgotten through the endless days away from society; and through those endless days, they lose their dignity, as well as their life.
The Aquino government thought it has successfully “killed” them. As they claimed, the detainees do not exist, “There are no political detainees in the country.”
But look again: we have not forgotten the political detainees. They are still fighting, not just for freedom for themselves, but for social changes for the whole country. Their call must reverberate around the Philippines.