After several weeks in the prison apostolate – an experience I had 2 years ago – I now have the orientation so far about how the prison system in Manila City Jail works: its dorm distributions and their corresponding dormitory attributes that made them one and group each other, as birds of the same feathers, and as a family who, by the same human standards outside, abide in a code of conduct as how the practice of discipline legally operates, seen visibly in their ‘magna carta’ written and posted outside each quarters. These dormitories, although hard-won through unforgettable initiations, are not fixed, nor are the inmates forced to join a particular dorm corresponding to a certain group. In fact, most of the inmates favor being ungrouped or being part in the seven dorms labeled as Cuerna composing most of the dorms in the city jail.
It is important to note these so-called human standards, because they orient us of the same level of dignity, structure, processes, but also of the legalities and illegalities found inside the prison system, as if they determine the stratus one belongs. By human standards therefore, the inmates are structured hierarchically and the gap between rich and poor inside the jail is still glaringly visible – rich inmates can buy rooms with comfy beds and home furniture while the poor ones have to sleep on the floor – the same reality faced outside. This boils down to our understanding of penal institutions which have risen solely for that display of human standards pointing to the power of those who are above in the hierarchy, a display in which the governed, those below the strata, are made to think of this immense gap. And these institutions now have moved on, as they claim, to have now deviated from such superficial showcase into focusing once again on how they should operate, i.e., on discipline: to correct and subject everyone to the legal code all must adhere to.
Having been shown with all the groups and dorms – the Sputnik, Batang City Jail, Cuerna, Commando, and so on – I have never met such a group that is so welcoming, open, and religious, as that of the latter, the Commando prisoners. I easily noticed this even when I first stepped on their dorm grounds: the people were smiling, they fell in line to wait and talk to us, and the conversations were nearly endless because of their sharing in turns, as if willingly a portion of their lives cannot wait to be shared. I have met the group twice already; the first time when I talked with and was fascinated by Johnny and his story, and the second sometime in September 2013 with the inmates who happened to be, which I assumed most of the group were, friends of Johnny who at that time was already fortunately freed, hopefully also of his misdeeds. So I conversed with the people around me and tagged a question to them: “How do you think, in any way possible, does our Mother Mary show her love to you?” And these people, wearing rosaries in their necks, willingly started sharing the women in their lives, their mothers, their aunts, wives and daughters, and themselves who are able to sustain their daily struggles. And in asking myself what could be my role there in facilitating conversations with them, I was at last answered by two of them, filling each other’s sentences, requesting me (in Tagalog): “Brother, the best thing you can do to all of us here is to pray for us, that we may get out of here fast, that we may still sustain our daily hardships, and that is the most effective and useful thing. We know that we are here to correct ourselves dito palang (here-and-now).”
Now whether or not penal institutions were only concerned with the showcase of power or the discipline they can inculcate to their subjects, for these Commando people it was not only the law that helped them correct themselves but also their faith. The same is very true with seminary formation which is in a way a penal institution itself for the proper disciplining of future ministers, reflecting the values of the law of God that is love. Do we demarcate ourselves with the experiences we have with theirs? Surely we do share the same reality with them, the same daily struggles in the light of disciplining ourselves – effectively and solemnly praying, hoping to be free with our sins, and fully convinced, like the Commandos, of correcting ourselves dito palang.