Friday, November 25, 2022



Prison movies and other ruminations

 / 05:05 AM November 25, 2022

That in the movie world there is a so-called prison genre means that so many movies on prison life have been made. So these movies are in a genre of their own.


When we are faced with something that seems incredible, we are likely to remark that it happens only in the movies. Or that it is stranger than fiction. The shock effect soon dissipates, and we know for sure it isn’t straight out of a movie. Life imitates art and art imitates life, and that is all there is to it.

No two ways about it. This country’s overcrowded national penitentiary or the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), home to tens of thousands of convicts serving time, is truly a drug den, a lair of liars, even a resort of sorts for the privileged few who can afford to make their prison dwellings the envy of the free. Here, drug trafficking thrives (prostitution, too, I learned), crimes are plotted, game cocks for betting are raised, booze is aplenty, and apartments are built for rent. Name it. Everything under the sun that should not be happening there is happening there.

I do not discount that saints live in the midst of scoundrels. But that is another story.

The latest to be discovered is a huge excavation so deep no prison official can explain it without breaking into a sweat. The NBP is a mini-society unto itself, with a hierarchy of influencers that seems immune to the authorities who run the facility. That is the picture that we have begun to see.

These shockers are not new. How many times in the recent past have these incredible happenings been exposed? But as quickly as they were in the media limelight or became the subject of Senate investigations and the like, they receded into the mist and nothing was heard of them until something again exploded in the news. Like the murder of broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa that, it turned out, was partly plotted there by inmates whose power, money, and reach could be the envy of newbie politicians. These convicts are now euphemistically called persons deprived of liberty or PDL. Deprived?

The last time we were treated to a melodrama was when inmates implicated Leila de Lima, then a senator during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who the senator severely criticized for his alleged human rights violations that date back to when he was the mayor of Davao City. Before becoming senator, De Lima was secretary of justice during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III. That was when she was supposed to have received drug money from NBP biggies.

De Lima, to Duterte’s delight, has been in solitary detention for more than five years now even while her accusers are recanting one by one, reversing their testimonies and after two cases against her have been dropped.

Last month, a detainee from a neighboring section of the detention facility where De Lima is being held barged into her detention area and held her hostage at knifepoint. The hostage- taker lost his life courtesy of a police marksman, but De Lima could have lost hers too.

When will De Lima, the “longest-held hostage” of our justice system, be allowed to post bail? Or be freed for good? Facebook users, mostly women, are posting photos of flower power with the hashtag #FreeLeilaDeLimaNow.


While ruminating on all these, I thought of the prison movies I have watched, some true-to-life, others imitation of life. There is so much one can learn from them, the human aspect especially, and how crime, law, and the justice system affect lives in a complex society.

Here are some prison movies I remember I had watched, including war-related ones:

Philippines: “Bulaklak ng City Jail,” “Liway,” “Miracle in Cell No. 7.”

“Liway” is about a political detainee who raised her son behind bars. She was arrested and detained after her group’s armed clash with the military. She was released in 1986. I interviewed for a magazine story this former New People’s Army fighter whose nom de guerre was Kumander Liway (Cecilia Oebanda in real life) when she was already the head of a nongovernment organization. Her son Kip, who grew up in prison, directed the movie.

Foreign: “The Great Escape,” “Papillon,” “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Shawshank Redemption,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Unbroken,” “The Green Mile,” “The Last Castle,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Photographer of Mauthausen.”

“Shawshank” is considered the best prison movie there is, and one of the best movies of any genre ever made.

Read more: https://opinion.inquirer.net/159030/prison-movies-and-other-ruminations#ixzz7s2ntsbtE
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Friday, November 18, 2022



Doing Bilibid

 / 05:06 AM November 18, 2022

I can say that doing stories from the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) had been a privilege, if not an enriching experience for me.

Working journalists worth their salt and press IDs, sure have bragging rights added to what other bragging rights they have, if they had done Bilibid at any time during their reportorial years. Bilibid is the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City (Munti to regular habituƩs), not the Old Bilibid Prison in Quiapo. (I had also been in the Iwahig Penal Colony in Palawan.)


Doing Bilibid means doing stories from where tens of thousands of prisoners, euphemized as persons deprived of liberty (PDL), are confined for the duration of their sentences. Bilibid stories are usually written by those in the justice and police beats. I was not a beat reporter. I was a magazine feature writer who also did investigative stories for the special reports section while also writing column pieces. Straight news reporting on unfolding stories like the latest goings-on in Bilibid (cadavers piling up, underground tunnels discovered, mysterious deaths, etc.) could give a beat news reporter a heady, adrenaline rush while beating a deadline. They are a special bunch.

Feature writers are allowed more time to dig deeper into the obvious what-where-when-how-why, to let the story percolate into a fuller brew. And so the need for more interviews, news sources, and bigger ears for what is said and unsaid, bigger eyes for what is seen and unseen. Find “Deep Throats” and secret documents and dalliances, if any, all in a complicated setting where human lives clash and intertwine.

With all the new complex skyways and expressways going south, I don’t know if I can drive and find my way to Bilibid like I used to, easily park in front of what looks like a medieval castle sans moat and drawbridge. One cannot miss the imposing towers with teeth-like crenellations that heritage conservationists might want to assess before it is too late.

What is inside is another story. I remember the times I did Bilibid. My first story was on convicted rapists on death row before the death penalty by electrocution was abolished. I was warned that no one will admit guilt. But several did talk to me about life behind bars. The death penalty would later be abolished, restored, and again abolished.

Fast forward to February 1999. I was with an Inquirer team that covered the execution by lethal injection of convicted child rapist Leo Echegaray, the first since the restoration of the death penalty under the Estrada administration. There was a drawing of lots for a seat in the viewing chamber, and although the Inquirer did not get a seat, we were covering anyway.

Reporters camped out for the night on Bilibid grounds. When the day dawned, it was pandemonium as reporters outdid each other to get the latest from prison officials. At 3 p.m., Echegaray was pronounced dead.

Months later, the Inquirer got a seat for the June 1999 execution of Eduardo Agbayani, convicted for raping his daughters. I had the grim privilege of watching the execution from behind a glass panel. We were allowed to carry only a notebook and pen. I was seated behind Agbayani’s sobbing daughter. Via the sound system, we could hear the convict’s fading voice while the lethal injection was taking effect. I saw Agbayani’s face fall toward the side where we were seated.

The doctor announced the convict’s time of death. Then a loud cry: “Stop! Stop!” The curtains were drawn, and we all rushed out to find out what happened. President Estrada, it turned out, heeded Bishop Teodoro Bacani’s plea for a stay of execution, but the call from MalacaƱang came too late. What a story it was.

My last visits to Bilibid were in 2003 to interview the 10 so-called Aquino-Galman convicts, the military men who escorted Sen. Ninoy Aquino while disembarking from the plane that brought him back from exile in the US on Aug. 21, 1983. Aquino was shot dead before he could step on ground. So was Rolando Galman, who was first tagged as Aquino’s gunman.


At that time, the convicts had been in prison for 20 years. To interview them, I had to ask for a written consent from the Department of Justice. I went to Bilibid almost every day for several days. I even had photos of myself with them.

My series came out in the Inquirer in time for Ninoy Aquino’s 20th death anniversary in 2003. Doing the story was exhausting, but it was worth it. Not long after, I learned that one of the ten was stabbed to death. The last of them were freed in 2009.

One of the Bilibid finds that I had photographed was a rough white statue of Jesus the Good Shepherd beside the prison chapel. A shepherd looking up and with pain on his face, so unlike many that I have seen.

Read more: https://opinion.inquirer.net/158831/doing-bilibid#ixzz7s2oKXt59
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Friday, November 11, 2022



A cadaver story

 / 05:05 AM November 11, 2022

For three years during the COVID-19 pandemic and after, sari-sari store owner Ermesina Dimas had not received word from her husband Juancho, who had been in the National Balibad Prison for five years. So when she received a letter from prison authorities requesting her to come and identify her husband’s remains, she lost no time. Her husband died of pneumonia a month ago, the letter said.


Erme had expected Juancho to rot in prison. He had been an abusive husband and father to his and Erme’s five children. There was no way she would take him back if and when he would be released, she had told relatives and neighbors repeatedly. Her children agreed.

Juancho was convicted for being part of a drug trafficking operation. All Erme knew was that he was caught fishing out from the open sea off Pangasinan a package that turned out to contain high-grade meth. Juancho was a tricycle driver and part-time fisherman who seldom came home with enough catch. That big catch of his turned out to be his last.

“Look at the photographs of these dead prisoners,” the jail warden told Erme so casually, like he has been doing it often. “See which one looks like your husband. This way, you do not have to look at the 170 dead prisoners in the funeraria, a mountain of them there.”

Erme looked at the photos of the dead one by one. After some 20 minutes, she pointed at one. “This looks like him, number 121. I can easily identify him. The man has a tattoo of an anchor on his right arm and a hidden part of his body. He had dreamed of being a seaman, but…” Erme’s son, Juancho Jr., confirmed it was his dead father’s photo.

Off they went to the Southeast Funeral Homes nearby, accompanied by the warden and a guard who was at the wheel.

The funeraria assistant brought out Cadaver No. 121. It was on some kind of gurney, not a coffin. Erme let out a soft gasp. She looked at the dead man’s lower arm just above his right hand and, sure enough, there was an anchor tattoo. She looked at the tag tied on the man’s big toe. On it was a Chinese name of three syllables, not Juancho Dimas.

“Sir, why does the tag have a Chinese name?” Erme asked. “This dead man is my husband, Juancho. What does it say on your list, sir?”

“Oh, ah, ah, just a slight error perhaps. So many cadavers from prison, you know. Good thing he did not die of COVID-19, otherwise he would have been cremated immediately.”

While the warden and guard were out of the room talking to the funeral parlor assistant, Juancho Jr., with his cell phone, took photos of the cadaver in prison garb and the name tag that had a Chinese name on it. He immediately shoved the cell phone into his pocket.


The warden asked the funeral parlor assistant to remove the name tag on the cadaver. “This is a mistake, a mistake, so sorry,” he muttered while putting the tag in his vest pocket.

“Are you in school, young man?” the warden asked Juancho Jr. “What course?”

“Yes, off and on, sir. Working student. I want to become a policeman, sir. ”

“Do not worry,” the warden assured Erme and Juancho Jr. “Now that he has been identified, we will arrange with the funeral parlor to prepare his body for cremation. Do you agree? No expense on your part. Just between us, okay? Promise?” He smiled and winked.

Erme and Juancho Jr. looked at each other and nodded.

“Here is my number,” the warden said. “Let us know when you will be back to get his ashes. Please, no word about the wrong name tag.”


Folks, that is just a product of my imagination. I deny making any allusions to real life. But not imagined is the fact that in a Muntinlupa funeral parlor there are, right now, 178 unclaimed cadavers of inmates of the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) who died of various causes (but not of COVID-19) in the last couple of years. Justice Secretary Jesus Remulla wants that autopsy be performed on all of them. Each cadaver would have a story to tell.The NBP is no longer a place for rehabilitation and redemption but a cesspool where booze, drugs, and deadly weapons are aplenty. It has become some kind of command center where crimes are plotted and distantly carried out, like the recent murder of broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa that blew the lid off underground goings-on at the NBP.

Read more: https://opinion.inquirer.net/158635/a-cadaver-story#ixzz7s2pJf8xf
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Friday, November 4, 2022



Murder, she wrote

 / 05:11 AM November 04, 2022

The unfolding of new information on the Oct. 3 murder of broadcaster and vlogger Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa of the “Lapid Fire” radio program reads like a classic whodunit. There was the surrender and confession on Oct. 17 of hired gunman Joel Escorial, that was promptly followed by the mysterious death on Oct. 18 of New Bilibid Prison (NBP) inmate Jun Villamor who, according to Escorial, acted as a “middleman” between him and the mastermind who paid him and his accomplices P550,000. Villamor knew the mastermind and made intimations about his own impending death to his next of kin. A second middleman is now in police custody.


Things are making sense to me now after noted forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun presented her report at an Oct. 29 press conference, where she said that Villamor died of asphyxia or suffocation with a plastic bag. Present at the presentation was Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla, who had requested the pathologist’s services for a second autopsy.

The National Bureau of Investigation had earlier made its own autopsy and concluded that there were no signs of foul play.

There is not only one way of dying by asphyxiation, but being so specific about the use of a plastic bag when a plastic bag was not found in the vicinity of the murder scene suggests that someone knew about a plastic bag—and brought it up.

Most plastic bags that come with appliances have a warning printed on them, to keep them away from children. Prison officials should now consider plastic bags as life-threatening to others and to self. Remember the American actor whose cause of death was autoerotic asphyxia?

Fortun’s findings—evidence of pulmonary congestion, edema, and hemorrhages in the lungs—bolstered the plastic bag possibility or, shall we now say, that it is the other way around? That the plastic bag factor bolstered Fortun’s findings? I imagine the forensic pathologist getting a lead that makes her decide where to look. And so she looked. Eureka!

Murder, she wrote.

If I may digress, that was the title of the long-running TV whodunit series in the 1990s starring British-American Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, bestselling author of books on crime and solving them. The peripatetic Mrs. Fletcher was a modern-day Sherlock Holmes without the trench coat. Smartly dressed, hair coiffed in place, and pleasantly chatty, she always seemed to know where to look. The ageless Lansbury died on Oct. 11 at the age of 96. I say ageless because she played the mother of Elvis Presley in the 1961 movie “Blue Hawaii” long before she hit gold with “Murder, She Wrote.” People love murder mysteries.

And so where does the investigation go from here? Who knew about the plastic bag? Where is the plastic bag? That DNA-laden piece of evidence should add grist to the story.

But the case does not end with the silencing of Villamor. He had made known his fears to members of his family, who now fear for their lives. Well, as long as they keep the secret to themselves, they will always be in danger of being silenced. Better to make a counterthreat of revealing what they know in a sworn statement or video recording. The mastermind acting on his threat will only reinforce suspicions about his guilt.


Last Oct. 30, the Catholic faithful was reminded of the day being Prison Awareness Sunday. The Philippine bishops issued a statement saying that “what these PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) need are understanding and respect for them as human beings, a suitable place for correction and reformation, and a justice system that is centered on rehabilitation.”

In its totality, it was a bleeding-heart statement, indeed.

As the jigsaw pieces fall into place, one can see that the NBP, far from being a rehabilitation facility, is a breeding ground for vermin. Its ideal holding capacity of 6,435 inmates has been breached. It now has 28,545 warm bodies (2021 figures). It had/still has (?) “five-star” facilities for the privileged. Drug dealing, murder, corruption, name it, are plotted from there under the gaze, if not with the alleged connivance, of some prison officials.

Read more: https://opinion.inquirer.net/158448/murder-she-wrote#ixzz7s2poF5O4
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