Somewhere in Davao City, where petty criminals are notoriously gunned down on the streets, jail captain Edo Lobenia dreams of giving former detainees a new shot at life.
His method does not end life but rebuilds it. The project, dubbed “Second Chance Philippines,” restores human dignity by helping those who were formerly persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) find a job and earn a living.
The “wild” idea first came to the 28-year-old spokesperson of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) in the Davao region in 2015, when he was still a cadet at the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA).
Learning how difficult it was for ex-detainees to land a job, Lobenia asked: “How can we help?”
It was a question he answered by forming Second Chance Philippines. This project helps detainees get higher chances of employment, a key component in their reintegration to society.
“Not all detainees are bad,” Lobenia said. “Many of them are innocent or are victims of a [tragic] situation. They deserve a second chance.”
Life inside the jail is harrowing. One suffers from being alone and being around so many other detainees at the same time. The pandemic and the drug war did not make things easier for PDLs. If anything, the two became a deadly combination. Detention facilities became more congested because of the relentless arrests of so-called drug suspects, and lonelier because visitation rights were canceled to prevent the spread of the virus.
Leaving jail, however, has proven to be more challenging because PDLs remain prisoners of the social stigma that stops them from living everyday life. “They [PDLs] battle with the social stigma that goes with being a detainee. We get this notion from movies that portray them as bad people,” Lobenia said.
Getting employed is hard even for people without a record of detention. It’s harder, even impossible, for ex-detainees. Lack of employment is the biggest problem among ex-PDLs.
Francisco Santiago Jr. knows and carries this stigma everywhere he goes.
“I cannot apply for [work] requirements because I’m afraid the cops would follow me,” Santiago said.
Santiago was known as the Philippine Drug War’s Lazarus — the one who rose from the dead. He was the tricycle driver whom Malate police officers illegally detained in Manila on Sept. 13, 2016 supposedly because his name was in the drug watchlist. He said he was tortured inside a police station for hours before the cops shot him in a dark alley across Roxas Boulevard and left him for dead.
Santiago played dead for hours until a group of journalists covering the killings arrived. Then, as his photos and video footage were taken, Santiago twitched his feet and lifted his left arm to signal that he was still alive, which shocked everyone, including the policemen.
Santiago survived but cops pursued multiple charges against him. The criminal cases included frustrated homicide, which sent him to jail. A Manila court, which found the case laughable, later dismissed the case and set him free.
The same cops filed a new case against him, however. It is being tried in a different Manila court.
It has been three years since he was released, but Santiago could still not find a job.
Like most people who were once thrown behind bars, society would not embrace him back. The same people who had worked with him became the same ones who pushed him away.
After his two-year ordeal at Manila City Jail, Santiago also tried to ply the same route again with his tricycle, but other drivers would not let him. “They are afraid that the cops would go after them, too,” he said.
His chances of getting a job were imperiled by the bullet that was supposed to hit his heart but instead permanently damaged his left arm.
Santiago applied for a construction job, but his left arm bars him from carrying a heavy load. Neighbors who could hire him but knew about his physical condition stayed away from Santiago to avoid the awkward situation of turning him down.
Santiago vowed to go after the cops who wronged him. Someday, he said, when the cases against him are junked with finality, it would be his turn to file a lawsuit against the Malate police. But, for now, Santiago has no choice but to rely on dole-outs to raise his two children and keep himself alive.
“I cannot accept what they (cops) have done to me,” he said. “I still get nightmares.”
Former PDLs like Santiago often suffer from constant discrimination. The harsh treatment usually begins at home from family members embarrassed by their presence. The bias is reinforced further in the communities.
If society refuses to welcome them, where will the PDLs go?
With rejection and lack of opportunity, the natural course is for PDLs to commit new crimes and go back to jail. “Getting detained is not easy, but it’s a better option for those who have nowhere to go because with jails, they have a roof over their heads, food on stheir tables, and security guards [for their safety],” Lobenia said.
Lobenia hopes to stop this vicious cycle through Second Chance Philippines. Since its launching in 2019, the initiative has helped more than 100 male and female ex-PDLs land jobs in automotive shops, gas stations, agriculture companies, and construction firms.
Photo from Second Chance Philippines Facebook page
Photo from Second Chance Philippines Facebook page
Convincing the companies to hire them is just half of the battle. Choosing the “right” inmates for the jobs is another challenge. “Companies always ask how sure am I that they would not commit a crime?” Lobenia said.
The selection process is rigorous. The selection committee has to prioritize PDLs with light cases and clean records while in jail. This leaves those accused of heinous crimes, such as drugs and murder, at the bottom of the list.
Lobenia wants to inspire people to replicate the project all over the country. There should also be a law that will give a mandate to the government to help ex-PDLs gain employment. The effort begins with barangay officials, who would be required to assist detainees in looking for jobs. “This is similar to the Second Chance Act of the United States,” he said.
According to the US Department of Justice, the Second Chance Act “represents a federal investment in strategies to reduce recidivism and increase public safety, as well as to reduce corrections costs for state and local governments.”
Lobenia graduated from the PNPA in 2016, the year President Rodrigo Duterte, a former mayor of Davao City, won the presidency. The same year saw the full wrath of Duterte’s campaign promise to kill criminals all over the Philippines. The year also saw massive roundups of thousands of suspected drug addicts, contributing to unprecedented jail congestion.
Lobenia witnessed these problems in jail firsthand. These were the reasons why the BJMP sought to increase capital outlay in its annual budget and Lobenia was grateful that Philippine congress greenlit the request.
The jail captain was a seminarian in Eastern Samar before entering the force. Since then, it has become his mission to help PDLs and truly set them free,not only from detention but also from recidivism and the social stigma that hangs over their heads like the Damocles sword.
Lobenia is guided by two verses from the Book of Matthew. The first reads: “For when I was in prison, you visited me.” The second is a verse that usually sends people to reflect: “Who am I to judge?” END
Top and middle photos from Shutterstock