It was an exciting week for Pamela Simpiano. At 26, she was finally graduating from high school. She was completing requirements for graduation and was looking forward to going to college when she received a notice for a court hearing the next day.
This was not unusual for her — she was in jail at the time.
Pamela still remembers that day clearly. “On March 9, 2020, after dinner, I was busy poring through my reports when I was informed that I had a court hearing the following day. I shrugged this off as another exercise in futility, much like all other court hearings I attended in the past seven years,” she said.
The court hearings, which were scheduled once or twice a year, were usually postponed or delayed by the non-appearance of either the arresting officers or the witnesses. Pamela did not expect that it would be different that day.
On March 10, 2020, the day of the scheduled hearing, the public prosecutor finally accepted Pamela’s plea bargain offer. After seven long years behind bars, Pamela was finally free.
Teen in prison
Pamela was arrested in a 2013 raid in Toril, Davao City for alleged violation of Republic Act No. 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act — along with 11 others.
She had just turned 18. Two were minors and were released after undergoing rehabilitation. The rest, including Pamela, were charged and detained.
The Ray of Hope, an all-female facility for persons deprived of liberty (PDLs), would become Pamela's home. To avoid the stigma of jail, the detainees at Ray of Hope are called “bakasyonistas.”
The facility was operated by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) Region XI. It was established in 2008 as a separate detention facility for female PDLs.
In 2018, five years after her incarceration, Pamela and her co-accused offered to plead guilty to a lesser offense, or to only one or some of the charges, in return for a lighter sentence.
While she and the others were not optimistic that the prosecutor would accept their plea-bargain offer, Pamela did not waste her time brooding. She decided to occupy herself with pursuing her education while in jail.
At the Ray of Hope, detainees are provided with opportunities for formal and non-formal education, a project with the Department of Education, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), and other private groups.
Pamela availed of the the program at the Davao City Jail called College Education Behind Bars (CEBB). It is an educational institution that offers detainees a senior high school program and two college degrees – Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Agribusiness.
Pamela looks back at her time under the program: “I learned to be responsible, compassionate, and to strive to be a better person (in jail). (My fellow inmates) prodded me to finish high school through the Alternative Learning System, and to apply as a scholar to CEBB.”
Finishing high school was her personal “ray of hope.”
PDLs long for the day they finally regain freedom. But with Pamela, her release brought her anxiety.
“My first thought was, where will I go? What will happen to me?,” she said.
Pamela had no family. Her parents died while she was in jail. She did not know where her younger brother Paulo was. She had only heard he might be staying with relatives in Panabo City, Davao del Norte.
A friend came to visit Pamela after receiving news of her impending release. But instead of feeling happy at the prospect of freedom, Pamela described the sensation as being “swallowed up in a black hole.”
“I began to tremble in fear of what was in store for me outside Ray of Hope. What will happen to me? Can I even finish senior high? These thoughts raced through my mind as I lay down on my cot, crying my heart out,” she said.
Even finding someone to follow up her release papers was a problem.
“I was fortunate that one female jail officer volunteered to work on my release papers. I even pleaded with her to allow me to stay in jail for just one more day to give me time to gather my thoughts before facing a very uncertain future outside jail. But she turned this down, saying it was not legal,” she said.
Gail Ilagan, chair of the Psychology Department of the Ateneo de Davao University, said Pamela could have been feeling “habituation and expectancy.”
“Jail turned out to be a secure environment for her. There were rules, routine, and it was a safe place that allowed her to thrive, (a place) where she did not have to hide who she was and what she had done to be accepted and cared for. She came to expect to be there for the long term,” Ilagan said.
A transition from a prison facility to the community was evidently needed.
Aland Mizell, president of Social Entrepreneurship, Technology and Business Inc., the organization that runs CEBB, said they have an aftercare program which is a reintegration program for students who want to continue studying after they are released from jail.
“We do help them continue their education,” Mizell said.
Once the students are released from jail, CEBB staff members meet with them to consult whether they want to continue with their program. The students are then made to sign a contract where they promise to refrain from illegal activities.
CEBB also helps students with job-hunting, paying special attention to those with excellent scholastic records.
“Also, we have launched a new program called Agri Connect for those former inmates who have finished the program and would like to start their own business. We help them start their own business," Mizell said.
Mizell says he understands the challenges that PDLs face after their release from jail–they are anxious about how they will be accepted by their family and community, and they grapple with the stigma of being a former inmate.
“We have been conducting consultations with female inmates so they can participate in women agenda crafting. We also facilitate livelihood skills for income generating opportunities when they are released from jail, such as hair science, nail technician, and food processing," said Lorna Mandin, head of Ray of Hope’s Integrated Gender and Development Division.
Mandin added: “Ray of Hope has been recognized by the Philippine Commission on Women as a learning center for Gender and Development since 2015.”
Thanks to all the dedicated individuals who help former detainees, Pamela has been successfully reintegrated into the community and now works as a call center agent, a mere two years after her release from jail. She was also hoping for a promotion.
Leaving the past behind
Pamela looked back at her childhood years without regret.
“At that time, l was happy living in the streets with my friends. We slept in the benches at Quezon Park and tried to eke out a living doing some hustles, which I now believe were petty crimes," she said.
Pamela was only 11 when she first ran away from home. She had befriended someone who introduced her to a group milling around Gaisano Mall in Davao City.
“We would dumpster dive every time the crew from Jollibee threw out the day’s garbage. To me, the left-over food was delicious. We segregated the rice, chicken bones, spaghetti, and whatever else was there, and sometimes heated it. Other times, we just ate it as is.”
At the start, Pamela's father reported her missing and asked the police for help. But Pamela eventually became adept at eluding her father. At age 12, Pamela was already one of dozens of children hustling in the streets of Davao.
“Buntog” was what they were called. It's a Visayan word for quail, a small bird that hops from nest to nest. But in the Davao street scene in the early to mid 2000, the word was loosely understood as referring to street children engaging in sex with their peers or for prostitution.
“I was one of those children they called ‘buntog,’ and I admit I was also a ‘shine girl’ (girls performing sexual acts on customers). It was a source of easy money,” Pamela said.
The “buntog” problem became such a huge concern for the city that a curfew on minors was imposed by then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Street children were routinely rounded up and sent home, or were temporarily held at the police station.
At 16, Pamela said she also began using shabu, an escalation from her former vice of solvent-sniffing. In the company of an older man who introduced her to the drug, she said she became addicted to shabu in no time.
“I was in a very bad place. I started to do anything just to get a high. Then when I was about 17, I experienced an incident on the road that I thought would kill me. This woke me up to the reality that I was heading to a very dark place," she said.
She slowly weaned herself from drugs and returned to hanging out with friends her age. She was still homeless but sometimes frequented the Tambayan Center for Abused Street Children, a non-government organization helping street kids. She would pay P1 for a bath, and sleep all morning.
Her troubled years on the streets and her life as a detainee now firmly behind her, Pamela decided to look for her brother after her release from jail. With some money given to her by friends at Ray of Hope, she proceeded to Panabo City, where her mother used to live.
Pamela was afraid her relatives would shun her, but an uncle immeidately recognized her. He brought Pamela to her brother Paulo, then already 18 years old.
“Seeing my brother was great for me. In my mind, he was still this little boy whom I took care of when I was nine until I left home. Maybe the burden of taking care of him took a toll on me," Pamela recounted.
Their parents separated when she was nine and her brother was still a toddler. Her mother looked for work in Manila and left them in their father’s care, but he had to work too, so Pamela had to take care of her little brother.
Her father later asked another relative to live in their house to care for Paulo. This was the time she met a friend who introduced her to life in the streets.
But that’s in the distant past now. Her life on the streets led her to jail, but she said jail was where she learned all the lessons she needed to equip her for a job.
Eyes on the future
After a week in Panabo, Pamela started looking for a job. A friend invited her to work in a karaoke bar as a waitress. But it was not for her, and she later resigned.
On the other hand, she enjoyed her job application process to a BPO company.
“I did not expect that I could easily land a job in this industry. The human resource manager was surprisingly kind and did not go into details of my life. I was honest about my incarceration, but he did not seem to take it against me, and for that I felt blessed," she said.
“I can say I’m blessed because I was given a second chancefirst by CEBB for giving me the scholarship to finish senior high, and by the people who helped me along the way,” Pamela tearfully says. .
“Maybe this is what they call reformation in jail – that you have to learn to help yourself and not rely on other people. Sure, they will provide guidance and open doors of opportunities, but ultimately it will be your own decision to move forward,” Pamela contemplates.
The only stigma she faced was the discomfort she felt in government offices when she completed her requirements for the job application. She felt she was mocked or looked at strangely when she submitted her documents for processing.
“It made me feel insignificant and small, like I have already been judged by these people who I thought were professionals. But I refused to dwell on their pettiness," she said.
For a girl who survived the mean streets and the trauma of incarceration, a little bureaucratic pettiness is a small bump on the road. Pamela refused to look back or stoop down. With the future looking bright, she keeps her eyes straight ahead. END