July 2018. It was the first day of school for 23 senior high school students of Hope section. The students wore wide grins and sparkling eyes. It could pass for the first day of class in any given school. And it was, except that at the end of each school day, these students returned to the women's facility of the Davao City Jail.
Wearing yellow shirts, the students sat on white chairs in front of simple tables inside a room with white-painted walls. The girls carried no school bags or books. At the door, a uniformed female jail guard stood quietly, her gaze hidden behind dark sunglasses. Her presence was a sobering reminder that the facility is still part of the jail.
This was the “College Education Behind Bars” (CEBB), a school inside Davao City Jail that had successfully granted 32 student-detainees diplomas for a bachelor's degree in agribusiness and information technology. Its second batch of senior high students started classes this year.
In 2016, Aland Mizell, president of Minority Care International (MCI), a nongovernment organization providing academic scholarships to indigenous peoples across Mindanao, and lawyer Susan Cariaga visited Davao City Jail to distribute educational materials for the jail’s learning program. They also wanted to explore the possibility of having a “Celebrate Recovery Program” in the facility. The program is a faith-based, 12-step recovery program for those struggling with hurt, pain, or addiction, which was very successful in the United States.
Mizell is an American advocating for social entrepreneurship through his Social Entrepreneurship, Technology and Business Institute (SETBI), a social enterprise based in Davao City that trains MCI scholars on how to run a business. The students operate a coffee shop located near Ateneo de Davao University. Cariaga is president of Thompson Christian School, which offers basic education in Davao City. Together, they worked on the plan to build a school inside the jail, seeking to reform the criminal justice system by giving hope, opportunities, and a future for those deprived of liberty.
They partnered with Dimirie Foundation, a Davao-based charitable foundation, and the Department of Education to launch an alternative delivery mode to widen the access of marginalized and disadvantaged learners to quality basic education.
The University of Southeastern Philippines (USEP), the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology and the Commission on Higher Education were also invited to take part in this initiative and, by the end of the year, a memorandum of agreement was signed to establish the CEBB.
Mizell said the program offers an opportunity to those who did not go to school before their detention and are serious in rebooting their lives.
"We wanted to encourage people and PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) to open their eyes and change their negative mindsets in order for real change to happen. I truly believe that we need to move quicker together in transforming the prison sector," he told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
The land where the facility was built was donated by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). The architects, engineers, masons, electricians and construction workers were all inmates.
USEP provided the educational curriculum when classes started in 2017. In 2018, the Thompson Christian School opened its senior high program.
Classes are held from Monday to Saturday for a range of programs: information technology, education, social entrepreneurship, and business. It also offers courses in rehabilitation, recovery and behavior changes that can be applied in a real working environment.
"When I first stepped into the gate of the campus in 2018, the sweet smell of air, powerful and refreshing, burst through my lungs that were so used to the stale air of a crowded cell. At that time, I had already spent three and a half years inside the jail," said Rauf Ali, who finished senior high school in 2020. He is now a second-year agribusiness student at USEP, continuing the CEBB the program after getting out of jail.
He was acquitted of drug charges in May after serving six years and seven months in detention. He was only 19 when he was arrested in 2015.
"It was just too long," he said. "Still, I was able to get an education which lightened the burden of being incarcerated."
A pioneer member of the faculty, lawyer Danilo Balucos, who also teaches at Ateneo de Davao Law School, said the CEBB students knew their admission to the school was a privilege and thus studied hard. Having passed a rigid screening process, the student-detainees also enjoy the convenience of school facilities.
At least during school hours, students stay in fully air-conditioned classrooms and use laptops, audiovisual, and laboratory equipment. They can take a break at the coffee shop. Rehabilitation in jail helped them clearly identify their vision, mission and goals in life, Balucos said.
"It appears that they know better who they are and what to do when they reintegrate with the free society," he added.
Most of his students faced charges of violating the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act or Republic Act 9165. This prison education experience in Davao City Jail proves that illegal drug offenders can change their lives for the better if given the opportunity, he said.
What the detainees need, Balucos said, is appropriate rehabilitation intervention. They should be prosecuted and not killed extrajudicially, he said.
For Balucos, teaching inside jail pushed him to innovate and be more creative with teaching approaches and strategies. He also learned to empathize and work harder, and became more motivated to pursue higher studies.
"I learned unique lessons in teaching students deprived of liberty, which I could not have gained from the usual classrooms and conference halls," Balucos, an active member of the National Union of People's Lawyers, said.
On August 6, 2018, SETBI partnered with the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) to replicate this education program to a second campus: the Davao Prison and Penal Farm.
The school at the penal colony is on its third academic year. In 2020, it added course offerings by partnering with the Davao Del Norte State College.
Balucos said PDLs who go to school have a significantly lower reoffending rate on release compared with those who never had any kind of education in detention.
Challenges during the pandemic
Just like all schools, prison education has had to adjust during the pandemic, Mizell said.
"Our team at the College Education Behind Bars inside Davao City Jail and [Davao penal colony] campus have been working around the clock preparing paper-based modules of learning which PDLs can then complete," Mizell said.
The program will be offered as a correspondence course as long as there is no face-to-face learning.
"While this ensures that PDLs are able to continue to learn, we know that nothing can substitute for face-to-face learning, which is designed to rehabilitate PDLs. Although we don't expect education to look the same as it did before the pandemic, we don't want to return simply to business as usual," he added.
In March 2020, when Davao City imposed a lockdown, Mizell and his team shifted immediately to paper-based learning.
"The pandemic taught all of us how important technology has become. We need to utilize technology and make use of it. If an IPad- or Chromebook -style device is available in cells for a greater number of PDLs, they can access courses, modules, homework, a research portal and more, and be much better prepared for their release. This will help PDLS improve their skills for the digital world. And they are not going to be outdated but more updated when they are free, which is very good news for rehabilitation," Mizell said.
He believes, though, that the best rehabilitation is face-to-face. Meeting role models, being treated with dignity, and forming a community are a major part of what makes college education inside the prison such a unique and transformative experience, Mizell said.
"We are not sure how long this pandemic will continue and it is very important that we make positive innovations now. It is a win-win for everyone – for the PDLs and for our society," he said.
Education inside prison is difficult to sustain financially. It has to rely mostly on partnerships and the goodness of people's hearts. While partner universities and schools pay faculty salaries, there are other expenses such as administrative costs, repairs, and upgrading of equipment.
Businesses, Mizell said, could be a very good source of assistance as corporations get incentives for donating 20 percent of their profits to needy communities as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs.
"What if part of the CSR will be hiring of former PDLs who have gone through College Education Behind Bars programs? They could present a recommendation letter from the school and this would be a great first step towards convincing employers to take on former offenders," Mizell said.
The Cariaga Law Firm in Davao City, for instance, hired former CEBB students released from jail. Lawyer Susan Cariaga attests that the former PDLs were some of the most hard working and kind people she had hired.
Giving ex-detainees jobs is an effective way to stop recidivism. Otherwise, they become vulnerable and return to criminal activities.
Changing lives one day at a time
CEBB is anchored on the belief that the drug problem is a social problem. Therefore, it is everyone's problem and everyone's responsibility. In the college, PDLs are treated as students, not criminals.
Jinky, who finished her senior high school studies at the campus of Thompson Christian School after she was released, said her life took a huge turn after she was admitted to CEBB.
When asked what day in class stood out in her memory, she said it was when they read Christopher Marlowe's pastoral poem "A Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and Walter Raleigh's "Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd."
"The imagery touched me, especially because I can really see what the shepherd was talking about and the meaning resonated on so many levels," she said. "It was like someone telling me not to be gullible next time," she added.
Rauf, who was still a teenager when he was arrested with his brother, remembered walking through the door that separates the school from the jail every morning with excitement. It was like walking into the wardrobe in the book “Chronicles of Narnia” by CS Lewis, he said, where the children find themselves on the other side, in a magical world where they fulfill an old prophecy.
"We look forward to Mondays and feel sad when Friday comes. It means we have two days inside our steaming hot cell. I think this feeling is different for students outside jail who look forward to weekends," he said.