Saturday, June 24, 2006

Death penalty abolished...yippee! (or maybe not)

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed the bill abolishing the death penalty today. Said she: "Today is good day to sign the death penalty abolition because it is the feast of St. John the Baptist who was a victim of death penalty in his time."

Need we add, though, that St. John the Baptist was also a victim of the political and personal expediency of the ruling family of Israel at the time? Ah, but I digress.

Of little comment in the blogosphere at large was a freak incident on this same week at the Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center (BBRC) in Cebu: a live wire killed five inmates in their sleep.

How did this happen? As with many of the Philippines' prisons, the BBRC is overcrowded. What was supposed to house 250 prisoners houses -- guess how many? -- 2,600. Ventilation is poor so the inmates take it upon themselves to install electric fans and unauthorized outlets. It didn't help that work on the new jail is much delayed by typical Cebuano political bickering.

Not a silya electrika anymore, observed one radio commentator, but a selda elektrika. (Not an electric chair, but an electric cell.)

Before death penalty opponents prematurely celebrate over their victory, it's well worth to pay a visit to any of the hundreds of nearby provincial or city jails in the country. For those looking for a soft introduction, I might recommend the Bulacan Provincial Jail; for those who are wanting a little tougher, try the Caloocan City Jail; for the truly hard-core, there's always Muntinlupa (though I haven't been to the last one.)

Philippine jails are not a good experience. I've written about them before, here, here, here, here, here, and here, with some additional pictures here. Cells are overcrowded, prisoners have to pay (either through cash or service) for the privilege of sleeping on a mattress, and the less fortunate have to sleep on the floor cheek-to-cheek. The food is barely fit for dogs, forcing the creation of an underground economy of instant noodles and outside meals brought in. It's a parody of society, complete with a hierarchy of mayors, lieutenants, underlings...and I'm just talking about the prisoners here.

Of course, this being a Filipino creation, the festive atmosphere is never absent. Relatives come to visit, some daily; others even have the privilege of staying overnight. Remember the 2,600-figure I mentioned earlier? On a weekend night, it's probably higher.

One would think that the inmates deserved what they had coming to them. How many times, after all, have we heard the term "rule of law" bandied about by this administration? Yes, some of them do deserve to be in jail, but what about these fellows:

* One inmate I met was a near-quadraplegic. He couldn't use his feet, and his hand were too weak to hold anything. The first time I saw him, he was being carted out of the toilet and back into his wheelchair. What do you think he was in for? Rape, they charged.

* Another inmate had just been released one day. It was late in the afternoon, and he was afraid he would get beaten up some thugs waiting outside. He asked the prison guards if he could stay the night. They beat him up instead. He crawled under a motorcycle. They charged him with grand theft auto.

And I haven't even gotten to the minors who were mixed in with the adult offenders.

There are many more stories like these, repeated all throughout the country. And that really points out the real problem.

It's not the death penalty.

It's the prevailing system of injustice.

Just like the one that killed St. John the Baptist.