Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Caged Birds

I am no longer a stranger to jails, so, when I went to do a story on Davao city’s newest women prison facility (which, except for the high fence, did not look like a jail at all), I already knew how to strike a conversation with the women inmates.
“Will you talk about your case?!” I asked the woman who took the courage to approach me, the closest link she thought she can get to the outside world.
“Drugs,” she said, smirking. She got caught in a police buy-bust operation, she explained in a Tagalog I did not understand, because she was using the language of the trade.
“And you?!” I asked another woman beside her, “Drugs,” the woman smiled and nodded.
“About 40 per cent of the cases of women inmates here involved drugs,” said the first woman. “Except them,” she pointed to a handsome woman in her forties, whose voice---when she described the new facility as more “hygienic,” “well-ventilated” and less crammed compared to the old one---was that of someone accustomed to giving orders.
Her case was illegal recruitment, the first woman said. There were only eight or 11 of them here in every 40 of us, said the first woman.
The first woman introduced me to the 64-year old woman, with graying hair framing her sad, wrinkled face. The old woman said she was accused of theft, for stealing coconuts from her own land. The land was mortgaged for a pig, a goat and a can of rice for her wedding feast back in the 1950s.
Her husband tried to redeem the mortgage but their neighbor refused. Three years ago, she was harvesting coconuts from an adjacent farm when the coconuts rolled over to her neighbor’s property. She came to retrieve the coconuts but her neighbor accused her of theft.
“I won the case in the barangay and in the lupon,” the woman said, in a voice made stronger and louder by her belief that she was right.
She failed to show up in Court two times after she was summoned for a hearing. She said she was so busy selling vegetables in Bankerohan, she had no time for Court hearings. Her family depended on her, she said. After two Court summons that she largely ignored, the sheriffs came to detain her.
Over a year ago, I saw the insides of a jail for the first time when we paid a visit to Lex Adonis, the Davao broadcaster jailed for libel. The broadcaster was jailed largely because he failed to defend himself in the proceedings. He was tried in absentia. He was the only libel case in the sea of other criminal cases. I remember the first conversations we had with the inmates.
“So, what’s your case?” one of our companions asked the man that Lex Adonis introduced to us. “Murder,” the man replied.
We nodded our heads vigorously to hide our surprise.
“How long have you been here?” one of us, who recovered, asked.
“Seven years,” the man said, “Still waiting for conviction.”
“Seven years!” we chorused, no longer able to hide our surprise.
“What will happen if you get convicted for four years?” one of us asked.
“I don’t know,” the man said. “I’ll just do what they want me to do.”
Everybody reflected on the murder and the man.
“I did not regret it,” said the man, as if he could read our thoughts, “I killed the bastard who raped my daughter.”
We nodded again, slowly this time. The circle around us grew as more prisoners came to join the conversation. Most of their cases were murder, rape, drugs. We listened to another man who told us how he was mistaken for the murderer, after he found himself standing near scene of the crime just when the police were arriving.
I remember what I learned from all the prison movies I watched: Even in jail, no one is guilty. Everyone is innocent.

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