Prison life during the pandemic

Prison life during the pandemic

Text by Tracy Cabrera / Photos by Benjamin Cuaresma

AS early as March, when the coronavirus pandemic was just starting to spread here in Manila, I distinctly became concerned about our prisons, which are often full of people packed like sardines and potential spreaders of the deadly coronavirus disease or Covid-19.

Same as poverty is real and so is prison life. Here we do not see men wearing designer clothes. We see men locked in small areas sitting on the floor. They do not have tables or chairs. The floor is where they eat, sit, and sleep.

We do not smell expensive perfumes. Instead, we smell the body odor of more than 1,000 men who may not have even taken a bath for days inside a steaming cell. Hardship here is real and being in prison is like hell.

We ask one of the prison guards, “Sir, if one of them has coronavirus, do you have an isolation room where you can put him?” The jail guard jokingly answered, “This (referring to the cell) is their isolation room.” We were flabbergasted.

Based on reports from the World Prison Brief (WPB), an online database hosted by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research of the University of London, which provides information on prisons around the world, the Philippines has the most jam-packed prison in the world. More than 500 men squeeze themselves like sardines into a jail that was only meant for 170. 

A New York Times article described conditions in Manila City Jail (MCJ): “The inmates were cupped into each other, limbs draped over a neighbor’s waist or knee, feet tucked against someone else’s head, too tightly packed to toss and turn in the sweltering heat.”

With the perceived inhumane reality in Philippine prisons, the Catholic Church has been active in providing inmates with better conditions.

The Philippine Jesuit Prison Service Foundation (PJPS) has been advocating a more humane approach to the rehabilitation of not just the incarcerated individuals but also their families.

Since its founding in 1994, the group has worked with the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) to provide programs to alleviate inmates’ living conditions. The group also provides livelihoods, medical assistance and scholarships to children of prisoners.

PJPS executive director Father Eli Lumbo said doing prison ministry is a full-time job where one cannot easily rest due to a plethora of church work.
“Each time I enter the prison camp, I do not know what to expect. After all, I minister to more than 20,000 inmates in the National Penitentiary . . . Majority of them come from poor families and a good number have not had education or a good education,” Fr. Lumbo wrote in a 2017 article of the PJPS.

The Jesuit priest also said that the Church’s role in prison ministry is not to judge but to give accompaniment and spiritual direction to inmates.
“I would not begrudge them their choices. I will not make the prejudices of our society the basis of how I deal with supposed criminals. As a priest, I am invited to enter the world of the convicted felon,” he added.

Visiting the prisoners is one of the corporal works of mercy, Fr. Lumbo explained.

“When we feed the hungry or give alms to the poor, we always have the impression that we are doing something for my neighbor. It is we who give—our neighbor merely receives,” he enthused.

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