Understanding the violence in Bilibid

Raymund E. Narag, PhD

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Without a long-term solution, majority of the inmates, mostly poor and powerless, will suffer from ambiguous policies and power struggle among gang leaders

The conditions in the Maximum Security Compound (MSC) of the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) are turning for the worse.

On January 8, 2015, at around 9:55 am, an inmate died and 19 others were injured when a grenade was thrown in the vicinity of the Sigue-Sigue Commando gang purportedly to assassinate the gang’s bosyo (leader).   

This came 3 weeks after the surprise inspection that uncovered the luxurious lifestyles of 19 inmates and their subsequent transfer to a detention cell in the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). The Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary said that this act of violence was in retaliation against a Sigue-Sigue Commando gang leader who was believed, within the prison community, to have provided key information to the DOJ about the drug operations of 19 inmates who have been transferred to the NBI.

The DOJ Secretary then provided an ultimatum to the 12 other gang leaders to produce the individual who threw the grenade, failure of which would lead to their transfer to disciplinary cells. If this threat to transfer pushes through, the gangs will be leaderless, which, in the short-run, will make the prison more unmanageable.

These series of events demonstrate the inherent ambiguity of the DOJ and the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) policies on penal management.

There are official policies that strictly prohibit the formation and recognition of indigenous structures that are prevalent in the prison community. Yet, the DOJ and the BuCor officials unofficially rely on these same indigenous structures to manage the day-to-day needs of the prison.  

Role of the ‘bosyo’

Take for instance the role of the bosyo and other inmate leaders or nanunungkulan

Officially, the BuCor Manual states that inmates must be treated equally and prohibits the formation and recognition of structures where inmates will lord over other inmates. The BuCor Manual also officially prohibits the formation of “kangaroo” courts where inmates discipline other inmates. These are tenets of international standards that govern prison management throughout the world and adhered to by the Philippine government.

Unofficially, however, prison officials tacitly and informally recognize the formation of the bosyo and the nanunungkulan. This is a by-product of the insufficient number of custodial officers. As mandated by the manual, there should be 1 custodial officer for every 7 inmates, yet in reality, the ratio is 1 is to 80. Coupled with this is the lack of cell space and overcrowding, and thus, reliance on inmate leaders becomes a coping mechanism for the prison officers in managing the cells. 

This shared governance of the cells has both positive and negative consequences. 

For one, inmate leaders are empowered to engage in developmental activities inside the prison – they take care of the sickly inmates, they provide for the maintenance of the cells, they run their own rehabilitation programs, and they participate in many other conventional, law-abiding activities in the prison. 

As such, when one enters the Maximum Security Compound, one will encounter a community, and not a prison – inmates and visitors crisscrossing the community with relative ease, inmate marshals guiding traffic, children of inmates running around in a mini-zoo, and other festive activities that resemble a barrio fiesta.  

In the process, inmates can create a dignified and conventional way of life inside the prison – they can become teachers in an Alternative Learning School, they can maximize their computer skills and work in the records section, they can still be parents to their children, and if entrepreneurial enough, they can send their children to college through their earnings in legitimate business opportunities in the prison.   

Power struggles

Like any other Philippine community, this shared governance also has negative consequences.

The perks and prestige accorded to the bosyos induce power struggle among the inmates. Though variations on the intensity of cell politics can be discerned in the different pangkat, for some pangkat, cell politics mirrors the all-out war nature of Philippine village politics, where the inmate politicos rely on guns, goons and gold to remain in power. 

In these pangkat, inmate bosyos are always on the lookout for inmates who challenge their positions and they use all necessary means to keep the challengers toe the line. Coupled with the presence of big-time drug dealers within their cells who can still run their operations outside or inside of prisons,  some of the bosyos provide protection to these inmate drug dealers in exchange of drug money that they can use to bribe prison officers. 

Awash in drug wealth, they can recreate the luxuries that they previously enjoyed outside of prison like jacuzzis, wide screen television sets, air-condition units, sex dolls, and all. 

This prison informal dynamics, if left to its own devises, creates a tenuous but peaceful equilibrium inside the prison community. Though iniquitous, corrupt and predatory, it keeps the day-to-day activities inside the prison running. 

However, if this equilibrium is tilted, the prison management tries to favor one of the bosyos over the others, or engages in a punitive action against VIP inmates of different pangkat and not the others, then the balance of power is slanted and the informal flow of command traditionally exercised by the bosyos may be broken. 

A free-for-all dynamics where inmates take independent actions may ensue.  As such, the grenade thrower may have acted on his own bidding without his bosyo’s knowledge to avenge the transfer of inmate-patron, and in this convoluted world of the prison, one may never know the truth. 

Weak agencies

Therefore, to hold the 12 gang leaders accountable by threatening them to be transferred to disciplinary cells is not a sound policy. 

First, not all of those 12 gang leaders are engaged in these bickering and they will be punished for an action they never committed. Second, transferring the 12 gang leaders will make the gangs leaderless and will be a recipe for turmoil as inmates will vie for the vacated positions. For some of the highly politicized gangs, this can lead to a violent take-over. But most importantly, relying on the 12 gang leaders to produce the suspect basically formally recognizes their role in prison management.

This indicates that inmate leaders are empowered to investigate the activities of their cell members, an act that should be officially conducted by the BuCor. In fact, what this shows is that the DOJ and the BuCor are punishing the inmate leaders for a responsibility which the DOJ or the BuCor should be doing in the first place. 

Ultimately, this demonstrates the ambiguity of the DOJ and the BuCor on whether or not they should recognize the indigenous structures inherent in the prison community like the bosyos, the kubols, the talipapas and other structures. 

While they officially deny the bosyos, the kubols, and the talipapas in public and erratically punish those who are caught engaging in the act, they informally rely on the bosyos, kubols and talipapas for the maintenance of the prison.

This ambiguity is a major stumbling block in prison management.  

There are no quick fixes to the current disorders in the Maximum Security Compound. 

A simple stop-gap measure may be to restore the equilibrium of power.  The current sentiment in the prison community suggests that when the DOJ and the BuCor relied on one inmate leader to spill the beans on other inmates, this created an imbalance. 

It may thus be prudent to transfer the said inmate to a secured housing outside of the Maximum Security Compound as threats to his life will be ever present in his current cell.  

A medium-term solution is to fast-track the construction of the disciplinary building that will be utilized to segregate high-risk and drug dealing inmates.  The construction of this facility will ensure that only those inmates who violated prison rules will be punished, contrary to the current policy where all inmates suffer for the acts of the recalcitrant few.

What needs to be done

Finally, a long-term solution is to provide material resources to the BuCor, construct multiple regional prisons with populations not more than two thousand, increase the number and quality of personnel, and delineate a prison manual that adheres to the principles of modern correctional management. A system of inmate classification, housing, programming, and assessment and documentation must be in place. 

A training program where prison officers are introduced to their professionalized roles must be conducted. In short, the government must fully commit resources to this much neglected bureau, as mandated by the Modernization Law of the Bureau of Corrections of 2013.

Without this long-term solution, the majority of the inmates, mostly poor and powerless, who simply wish to serve their prison sentences in a dignified and conventional manner, will suffer from the ambiguous policy of the DOJ and the BuCor and the power struggle among few inmate leaders.  

And with the penchant of the Philippine media to sensationalize and to blow things out of proportion – thus being unwittingly used by the inmates and guards in their prison squabbles – the New Bilibid Prison will continue to be a source of embarrassment to the government and to all Filipinos worldwide. – Rappler.com 

Raymund E. Narag was a former inmate in Quezon City Jail. He languished in jail for almost 7 years for a crime he did not commit. He served as mayor de mayores in the city for two years prior to his acquittal. He wrote a book that details life inside the city jail. He is currently an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, USA, and engages in research on comparative international prison systems. 

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