DAVAO CITY – Dave Barrios relishes his every waking moment at the farm. At the break of dawn, he goes out to pasture with his carabao and goats, then starts checking on his cacao plants, which have now reached more than a hundred. All have borne fruit. He has also planted vegetables on the nearby lot owned by a relative.
It’s a complete turnaround from last year when Dave was behind bars, spending time at the jail annex of the Male Dormitory at Davao City Jail. Like many Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) facilities all over the country, it was overcrowded. Its population of 900 is three times its ideal capacity.
What sets the facility apart is its educational facility for Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) – College Education Behind Bars (CEBB) — where they can obtain college degrees if they are willing to put in the work to complete course requirements.
Dave was able to finish all but one month of coursework by the time he was released in February 2021 after seven years in incarceration. The case against him was dismissed. The following March, he finished the remaining month of classes at the University of Southeastern Philippines (USEP), earning the degree Bachelor of Science in Agriculture Business.
Dave has been producing fine cocoa that can compete with the best in Davao’s growing cocoa industry, processing his cacao seeds with the help of his teachers. He is developing his version of the “tablea” or raw cocoa, and plans to market a cocoa drink.
Dave Barrios tends his carabao in his family’s farm in Tugbok, Davao City. He turned to farming after being released from jail when the drug case against him was dismissed, putting into good use the degree in Agriculture Business he earned through the College Education Behind Bars program of the Davao City Jail. All photos by Manman Dejeto
Dave Barrios sorts dried cacao beans in their home in Tugbok, Davao City. Dave takes pride that he can go about in the society as a free man after drug charges against him was dismissed and that he is able to work on improving his chocolate business.
The example of Dave Barrios shows that a jail sentence is not an obstacle to PDLs, who like him want to reintegrate into society.
Barrios is just one of many beneficiaries of CEBB, an initiative that started in 2017. Reny Aguilar, 42, is another successful scholar who has inspired other PDLs, said Aland Mizell, president of CEBB.
Reny recently earned his Bachelor of Science in Computer Technology at USEP, completing the degree after he was released from jail. He now works as a clerk at the Cariaga Law Office, a top law firm in the city, and looks forward to a new lease on life.
Reny took the “Celebrate Recovery” program, a rehabilitation class that made him realize he was bigger than his problems and that he could overcome his difficulties.
This school year 2022-2023, Aguilar enrolled in law school.
“The transformations seem impossible until it is done,” said Mizell.
“Jail is a tough place…. It is neither designed for reform nor for rehabilitation. The only tool available is survival.” But given the right chance, PDLs can reform and become productive members of society, he said.
Support services needed
Inmates gather inside a cramped cell of the the Davao City Jail Annex in Maa, Davao City. The jail annex , with a designed capacity of 300 inmates, now holds 900 inmates who are waiting for the outcome of their cases in court.
Two stages are crucial to the transformation journey of PDLs, said Isabelita Solamo, who leads the Access to Women in Conflict with the Law Project under the Partnership of Philippine Support Service Agencies.
These are post-trial and re-integration, which occurs right after courts have decided their cases and upon their release.
Accountability and redemption should be at the core of the criminal justice system, said Mizell. It is important for the PDLs to be able to accept court rulings as fair.
“An effective justice system enforces laws and administers justice in a fair and swift manner. The system must dispense justice equally to all people whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless,” he said.
“If some privileged people routinely prosper by violating rules while the under privileged are punished for non-compliance, then the underprivileged have no motivation to remain committed to being a lawful part of society. The unequal distribution of justice immensely harms a society’s development and progress,” he said.
After the trial, PDLs can begin to plan the years ahead, depending on how long they are going to stay behind bars.
At the BJMP in Davao City, authorities have adopted the program “Pangumusta” to boost post-trial support services. It’s a mechanism to monitor former PDLs and to assist in their livelihood or employment by coordinating with government agencies.
Apart from the possibility of obtaining a college degree through CEBB, the Alternative Learning System of the Department of Education offers the Basic Literacy Program to those who cannot read or write, or those who want to finish basic education.
The Technical Education and Skills Development Agency offers short courses such as dressmaking and salted egg making, allowing PDLs to earn income even while in jail.
Religious organizations also provide spiritual guidance and support to the PDLs.
It’s important to connect formerly incarcerated persons to supportive networks and services and programs, said Mizell.
In particular, there’s a need to reduce negative effects on children and families of the incarcerated and the released; streamline judges’ orders for rehabilitation after release, dismantle barriers to employment for ex-offenders; and supply certificates of rehabilitation and letters of reference, he said.
Persons deprived of liberty (PDL) does finish making a bed frame inside the Davao City Jail Annex in Davao City. PDLs of the Davao City Jail Annex are given a chance to continue practicing their trade inside the jail to allow them to earn and to prepare them for a life outside the prison.
Adjusting to life outside jail
Receiving the release order can trigger a myriad of emotions on the PDL. For one, there’s confusion on where to go when the door to freedom opens.
PDLs at this stage require a different support system.
Sheena (not her real name) was overwhelmed with emotions when she was told she was free. She was ecstatic to leave prison, yet anxious about what awaited her outside.
She often dreamed of what she was going to do once she was released but when the time came, she felt “assaulted by almost everything” she saw, smelled, and heard – “the bright lights, noise, dust, acrid smell of cigarette smoke.”
Unlike other PDLs who did not have a home to return to, Sheena was received with warmth by her family. But when she came home, she felt disoriented by the clutter which was the opposite of the minimalist and organized space at the jail facility where she spent close to six years. The home environment “threw her off.”
Sheena studied agribusiness at the CEBB. She continued her studies for a year after her release, but eventually left school to fend for her two children.
The most urgent need of PDLs after they are released is to find a job to prevent them from going down the old pit, jail reform advocates said.
Mizell cited studies showing unemployment to be the primary cause of re-incarceration. But PDLs find it hard to land a job due to the stigma attached to being in jail.
For Sr. Insp. Do Lobenia, the regional jail spokesman, there should be an ecosystem to provide PDLs with a certain confidence to rejoin society upon their release.
Lobenia, who had established a program called “Second Chance Philippines,” drew on his experience while studying at the Asian Institute of Management.
His proposal aims to prevent recidivism by ensuring that PDLs have a place to live in and work after they are released from jail.
With a partner, he has opened a small farm and an automotive shop in Catalunan Grande, Davao City for former PDLs who need an immediate source of income.
Jail Senior Inspector Edo Lobenia watches over persons deprived of liberty (PDL) repainting a vehicle inside the Davao City Jail Annex in Davao City. PDLs of the Davao City Jail Annex are given a chance to learn or continue practicing their trade inside the jail to allow them to earn and to prepare them for a life outside the prison.
Former PDLs are difficult to track as institutions often lose contact with the former PDLs and there’s lack of personnel to do follow-ups. Based on estimates, only three out of 10 former PDLs have successfully reintegrated into their communities and lead productive lives.
Reny Aguilar, too, was confused on where to go and what to do upon his release. As a father of four, he worried about the need for family restitution and to earn a living to provide for his family.
Reny had difficulty getting a job soon after he was released. But because of the support system he enjoyed at the Davao City Jail, he was offered a position by lawyer Susan Cariaga of the Cariaga Law Firm. Cariaga is also vice president of College Education Behind Bars, the group led by Mizell.
“[Reny] paid his debt to society by spending several years inside jail, and now it is time for society to support and mentor Reny to be a productive member of the community. With a college degree and useful life skills, a released PDL can overcome the prison stigma,” she said.
The communities – the barangays – need to be a part of this process, said Davao City councilor Pilar Braga, who worked on a draft ordinance to help women PDLs in the city.
The stigma attached to being in jail is harsher in communities where people know each other and are slow to forget their neighbors’ transgressions.
Braga’s proposed “Dignity for Women Deprived of Liberty” ordinance was a result of a strong lobby from women’s organizations in the city.
It provides for community-based support for reintegration after detention or imprisonment, apart from skills training and education while in detention.
“Most of those who are jailed have families. If they have served their time in jail, they deserve to be back to their community and our task is to help prepare them to have skills while still in jail so they can earn an income when they are free,” said Braga.
Braga said she believed in second chances and the capacity of the human spirit to rectify mistakes and lead a better life.
It’s difficult but possible with the right supporting environment, advocates said. END
Improving living conditions in jail
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At the BJMP facility in Davao City, the warden at the jail annex of the Male Dormitory has taken cues from the organizations supporting the persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) under his care.
There’s not much that Sr. Insp. Reinzon Roullo, 29, can do about overcrowding in the facility. There are 900 PDLs in the space made for 300, but he has improved the living situation in the jail since he took over as warden on Aug. 1, 2022.
Roullo’s first project was to siphon the septic tank to remove the stench in the area and dismantle the makeshift walls that covered sections of the jail. The prison walls were cleaned and painted white so artists inside the jail have space for their artistic expressions. This initiative immediately made the facility a little bit spacious and ventilated.
He has also built a deep well inside the facility to provide enough running water for the PDLs. Recently, a water refilling station was opened to ensure clean drinking water for the PDLs. They also sell drinking water to save money to buy solar panels.
“It is not easy to be inside a jail facility that is unkempt and where people just do nothing but wait for time,” Roullo said.
At one point, Roullo grouped the PDLs into teams and asked them what they planned to do to make their lives productive while in detention.
One of the PDLs suggested that since there were more than a hundred call center agents, team leaders, supervisors, and even a manager inside the jail, they might as well establish a business process outsourcing operation.
Roullo said he was exploring partnerships with BPOs in the city. — Amalia Cabusao