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Bilibid despair

“Graft and corruption inside Bilibid are merely the symptom, not the disease — they pale in comparison with the fact events inside prison walls contradict the public’s general ideas on punishment.

Nick V. Quijano Jr.

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Mischiefs of prison officials erupt so often like a gangrenous wound which does not heal, it wearies the public. So frequent is the eruption of the pus-filled abscesses it’s a wonder furious public anger hasn’t reduced to rubble the concrete and steel Bilibid, burying prison officials along with it. But I exaggerate.

Still, it is despairing to realize the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) Law scandal is an all too familiar one, another knot in the long string of knotty scandals bedeviling the national penitentiary.

While some sort of quick resolution of the GCTA scandals was made, with the unceremonious sacking of Nicanor Faeldon and reports of those thousands of heinous crime convicts released trickling back into Bilibid, huge questions remain.

One messy legal issue, for instance, is whether the rearrest of those who have been either surreptitiously or erroneously released is justified or not. As one lawmaker puts it: “We cannot just rearrest these people. They are not escapists. They went through the front door. They brought their things. They have release papers, so they went out.”

And with pertinent legal questions remaining, what to do about reports on past abuses now only surfacing? News reports, for instance, are indicating prison officials have easily made available, in the past two or three years and reportedly for huge fees, hospital passes for moneyed convicts.

Reports of hospital passes-for sale are not even shockingly new on account of the history of graft and corruption involving prison officials.

Still fresh in our memories were the luxurious and well-appointed cells of convicted drugs lords, where one confident drug lord had the gall to put up a disco for his and his guards’ entertainment.

The latest GCTA-for-sale scandal and all the other previous scandals, of course, fuel the public’s ferocity over prison officials, confirming the long-standing public suspicion the Bilibid has been turned from an institution meting out judicial punishment into an institution earning handsome monetary rewards for its warders.

Still, graft and corruption inside Bilibid are merely symptoms, not the disease — they pale in comparison with the fact events inside prison walls contradict the public’s general ideas on punishment. Punishment is not the rule in Bilibid, but the exception.

Why the public cannot tolerate and is furious about such facts are easy to see — the public’s general idea of punishment is the deprivation of rights.

By definition, “punishment under law is the authorized imposition of deprivations — of freedom of privacy or other goods to which the person otherwise has a right, or the imposition of special burdens — because the person has been found guilty of some criminal violation, typically involving harm to the innocent.”

That punishment as constituted, as imposing of some burden or of some form of deprivation or of withholding some benefit, was not happening in the Bilibid was there for all to see.

With such plain facts, the inevitable question therefore is — Is Bilibid serving its important institutional role as a deterrent of crime?

Such prevalent general skepticism often leads some to call for doing away with Bilibid and all other prisons altogether. A view strongly anchored on the idea that though prisons are deliberately organized and practiced by governments, it is not a basic social institution which every society must have.

This point of view that prison is not a natural fact comes from arguments that punishment under law by officers of the government is a political act.

As an authorized act, punishment is an act of the political authority having jurisdiction in the community where the harmful wrong occurred.

And, as often argued, with political authority squarely behind the practice of lawful punishment, putting people behind bars is subject to general forces in society that reflect the dominant forms of social and political power — the power to threaten, coerce, suppress, destroy, transform — that prevail in any given epoch.

So, since punishment is a form of politics, how punishment is viewed often changes as a society progresses.

As for our present moment of constitutional democracy, it is the firm belief among public policy advocates and the general public that the best thing to do with convicted offenders is to imprison them, in the belief the most economical way to reduce crime is to have criminals in jail or even put to death.

A common belief, which necessarily has to be reconciled with the fact that inflicting punishment also provides opportunities for abuse of power. We must not forget or obscure the importance of the fact that “punishment by its very nature involves some persons (those who carry out punitive acts) having dominant coercive power over others (those being punished).”

And because of that reconciliation, it is understandable the public is outraged at the never-ending abuses of prison officials.

If there isn’t much change in our prisons given the fact our penal system is falling apart, this has had a significant impact outside prison walls and has led to dire consequences wherein many are covering up the grievous moral crime of illegal shortcuts to effect justice by citing the failure of the prison system.

This is strikingly evident nowadays in the widespread approval by scores of Filipinos of the barbaric practice of extrajudicial killings.

Such a danger, therefore, gives us no choice but to keep the pressure up on our penal officials, making them work themselves to death until after our penal system eventually rights itself and saves us all from further barbarities even as we work hard at correcting the root causes of crime.

Email: nevqjr@yahoo.com.ph

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