Manolo Quezon is #TheExplainer Newsletter — Medieval Attitudes to Penology

Manuel L. Quezon III
16 min readNov 16, 2022

An omnibus: three columns, as I have been under the weather so was out of commission for over a week.

Today’s column refers to these items: Understanding the conditions of New Bilibid Prisons: Implications for Integrated Reforms by Raymund E. Narag, Ph.D.; Over 100 untitled jail properties aggravate congestion issue in 337 facilities, COA warns; Fort Magsaysay drug rehab center; DoJ to decongest national penitentiary.

See also this podcast from Spot.PH in which the late Clinton Palanca and I talked to Gang Capati about life in New Bilibid: Spotlight: Inside the New Bilibid Prison, Rock Ed Philippines founder Gang Badoy talks to us about what it’s like on the inside.

The medieval heart of our prisons | Inquirer


By: Manuel L. Quezon III@inquirerdotnet

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:30 AM November 16, 2022

A longer period of time (82 years) separates the present day (2022) from the institution of the New Bilibid Prison in 1940, than separates the institution of the Old Bilibid Prison in 1865 and the creation of its successor facility in Muntinlupa (75 years). These contrasting stretches of time starkly shows how overdue a new national penitentiary has been. At the heart of the inaction lies a conundrum: what was once a distant facility is now prime land, representing a spectacular windfall for any administration able to muster the political will to decree the closing down and relocation of the facility; conversely, it is in no one’s broader interest to permit any administration to enjoy such a windfall. Ignoring, of course, what would be basic in other lands and governments: the building itself is too history to be alienated and disposed of; it would, instead, be subjected to creative adaptation and reuse. Then again, if our governments couldn’t get around to adaptively reusing Old Bilibid (it was as far back as 1938 earmarked for reuse as a bus transport hub for Manila, but instead became the Manila City Jail), it’s no surprise New Bilibid remains stuck.

To be sure, ritual noises are made from time to time, the most recent being an August announcement by the Department of Justice (DOJ) that it would transfer some of the inmates of the New Bilibid Prison, to the currently mothballed grandly designated Mega Drug Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija. This was a white elephant composed of 75 shipping containers made possible by a donation by Huang Rulun. But even the DOJ, when it trumpeted the conversion, noted that it still has to clear up questions of jurisdiction with the departments of health and national defense. The truth is, discussions remain focused on achieving some sort of glittering Alcatraz-like facility when the real questions to be discussed are far more boring, but necessary: do we imprison, and allow to languish in prison, far too many people in the first place? And do we need one national penitentiary in an era when our population has exploded, and at the very least, we should explore a greater dispersal of penal facilities in a country rapidly running out of areas that can be considered remote, if the idea is to continue to isolate prisoners from the general population? We were once headed toward an ambitious, because humane, revisiting of our entire penal code, for example; but one of its leading proponents is now a political prisoner, and we have gone backwards in our communal attitude toward prison and jail in the first place.

The Commission on Audit (COA) for its part has warned that parcels of land donated for penal use are in danger of being lost to the bureau of jails because 108 such lots remain untitled. The COA has published gruesome statistics on overcrowding in other Bureau of Jail Management and Penology facilities: San Mateo at 2,696 percent, Dasmariñas City at 2,283 percent, and Muntinlupa at 2,146 percent. Here’s the clincher: 90 percent of detainees are “awaiting/undergoing trial and awaiting judgement.”

Almost a decade ago, Dr. Raymund Narag, an assistant professor in Southern Illinois University, published an NCPAG paper (“Understanding the conditions of New Bilibid Prisons: Implications for Integrated Reforms”) which, among other things, summarized the bursting-at-the-seams state of our penal system as follows. Overall, the system (back then) had a rated capacity of 17,000 inmates but an actual population of 42,000. The New Bilibid Prison itself, which dates to 1940, has a maximum capacity of 9,000 inmates but even then contained 17,000 inmates; its maximum security compound was built to accommodate 3,000 inmates, but then had a population of 14,000. As for personnel, the ideal ratio of personnel to prisoners is 1 is to 7; in actuality, the ratio back then was at 1 is to 80. Add to this perennially miserly budgets, whether for food, medicine, or even maintenance, and the mystery is how things aren’t much, much worse than what the paper summarized as “always under media spotlight due to observance of practices that are considered ‘scandalous’ by outside observers,” which is putting it mildly.

The paper makes for interesting reading, but a couple of points deserve amplification. The first is that the catastrophic congestion requires ad hoc solutions: prison personnel, for example, must rely on prisoners to police or merely administer, an institution continuously crumbling in terms of its infrastructure, while the entire, bloated prison population represents a society on the verge of collapse on practically every score. Over time, temporary solutions become codified, institutional scar tissue which makes the supposed purpose of our penal system — one aimed at correction and not just punishment — even more impossible to attain. This is a situation, in a sense, public opinion, for all its going into hand-wringing and finger-pointing every time there’s a scandal, has made not just possible, but inevitable. We are not a society that puts a premium on the human treatment of prisoners, even though the laws and the system that upholds those laws make things much harsher for the poor than the merely middle class, much less the upper class.

These contrasting formal and informal systems (in 2016, I had a fascinating conversation with Gang Capati who long conducted education outreach efforts in New Bilibid) are old as human society itself: the traditional system has always been that primitive, bestial conditions in state prisons could be, and were indeed expected to be, tempered by the ability of individual prisoners to pay for perks. Everyone in and out of prison understood this to be the way of the world. It remains the way of our jails to this day; when the roving eye of public opinion makes a period sweep into the world of our prisons, the usual palabas takes place, but things have to revert to the old mercenary ways, otherwise there would either be a mass extinction or a mass revolt or both in the jails, which would be worse for officialdom, knowing the same public opinion would never tolerate investing in what it takes to actually have a humane penal system.

This week’s The Long View

Collateral damage to the coalition | Inquirer

By: Manuel L. Quezon III@inquirerdotnet

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:30 AM November 09, 2022

The Asia Sentinel, that online but old-school uncompromising surveyor of all things Southeast Asian, recently published a report by its correspondent on the assassination of Percival Mabasa, better known to his audience as Percy Lapid. The correspondent suggested two things. The first was on whether President Marcos Jr. was serious about getting to the bottom of the liquidation. The correspondent quoted the opinion of “an expatriate country-risk analyst with long experience in Manila” as saying, “From everything that I’ve been told, Marcos is serious about going after those responsible for this killing. This will be a big test and challenge. He needs to keep the US onside so I suspect that he will do whatever is necessary to resolve this.” The second was another opinion: “It’s more likely,” the correspondent wrote, “that authorities dug into the Lapid case because he was one of the capital’s most prominent radio journalists, and because the murder occurred in Manila, not the hinterlands.” By way of supporting proof, the correspondent mentioned that Ray Blanco, another radio journalist, was stabbed to death on Sept. 18, but it hasn’t become a media sensation. It happened in Negros Oriental (I’d add: the murder of Benharl Kahil, a teacher and cartoonist, in Sultan Kudarat, has likewise been reported but not as avidly seized on by the public or media itself).

The Asia Sentinel report appeared the day before the government filed murder charges against Bureau of Corrections officials starting with its (suspended) director general, Gerald Bantag, his “right-hand man,” deputy security officer Ricardo Zulueta, and others. The secretaries of justice and interior and local governments were front and center, making appeals for the accused to surrender to the authorities: at least one online vlogger had taken the secretary of the interior to task for being too eager to hog the spotlight, which led to the identity of the middle man being revealed — providing an opportunity for the middleman’s liquidation.

Still, the charges have been filed. Two conspiracies basically took place: the first, to assassinate Mabasa, and the second, to liquidate the middleman, Jun Villamor. The remaining drama seems to be whether the accused will surrender to the authorities or remain in hiding. At one point, Bantag reportedly protested his suspension, saying the current chief of the Philippine National Police ought to have been suspended, too, since three prisoners were killed in Camp Crame and former senator Leila de Lima was taken hostage and nearly killed.

But it’s gotten a lot more serious now. Bantag has had, to put it mildly, a controversial career. When former president Rodrigo Duterte appointed Bantag Bureau of Corrections chief, Esquire Philippines diplomatically described him as “neither a saint nor a soldier,” while it headlined his facing 10 counts of homicide. Referring, in frustration, to Bantag’s predecessor, the disgraced Nicanor Faeldon, Duterte said he couldn’t find a saint, but trying a military man failed; so he might as well try someone with experience in the jail system. Senator (and, lest we forget, essentially acting president from 2016–2022) Bong Go once chirpily suggested that the president needed to hire a “killer,” but when the actual (multi-accused of killing) Bantag was appointed, clarified that ”Bantag is not a killer.” (A joke goes that Bantag indeed isn’t a killer — he just asks for killers to be hired on his behalf.) The Mabasa family lawyer is more circumspect: Bantag is the mastermind according to the evidence; it would be speculative and not borne out by evidence so far, to suggest there may be higher-ups involved.

Bantag was one of former Duterte’s last appointments before the pre-election appointments ban (March 28 to May 8) kicked in: he was directly appointed director general on March 9 of this year. He is therefore the former president’s and not the current president’s, guy. The question now becomes whether Mr. Marcos’ decision to get to the bottom of the assassination of Mabasa will sit well with the former president or at the very least his admirers. Reports on the investigation (setting aside the difficulties involved in the actual investigation) suggest the motive for the assassination was the exposés on Bantag by Mabasa. But if one glances at the comments in the loyalist-DDS networks, there seems to be some dissatisfaction with the (current) President’s resolve, and choice for a (temporary, for now) replacement for Bantag. Bantag himself has been reported as commenting that the President was unwise and naïve to appoint retired general Gregorio Catapang since he was a former Reform the Armed Forces Movement rebel (against Marcos Sr.) and appointed Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff before the Duterte era. In merry connect-the-dots fashion, it’s more than enough to propose a conspiracy involving framing Bantag.

The Long View Redux: Two columns

To his critics –but not only his critics — the recent typhoon and its continuing aftermath proved yet again how the President’s own predecessor, former President Rodrigo Duterte, described him: someone who can speak well but who, if crisis strikes, will be shown to be a weak leader, spoiled, with baggage.

The Acting Press Secretary, faced with a media itself gutted by a collapse in income and much smaller newsrooms, answered inquiries as to the President’s whereabouts with a denial: not in Japan! Which still left the question of where in the world is Ferdinand R. Marcos? By materializing in a Laoag eatery, the President answered with an inference: he was in the Holy Land, all along. Maybe?

It’s entirely possible the President took a cue from his own proclamation and intended to pursue some holiday economic of his own; there has been criticism of the weather bureau for having a rather vague idea of where the typhoon was, and of a lack of coordination with air transport authorities. The President might possibly have been a victim of this too or simpler still, decided to hunker down in Forbes Park since he still isn’t, apparently, a resident either of the Palace or Bahay Pangarap. The point is he still presided, even if it was virtual, and government did what government does, the creakiness of its response demonstrating how unused everyone has become, to working together, since the pandemic drove everyone apart.

But there may be more to it and it has something to do also with the pandemic, which is a return to a more passive relationship with the authorities when it comes to unexpected events.

For a society increasingly alienated by the changes and challenges of modernity, a return to tradition was comforting, best expressed by Carlos P. Romulo when he observed that “What Filipinos seek in a president is someone who will make decisions for them.” At the heart of this expectation is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the citizenry, and, conversely, the assumption of full responsibility by the chief executive. It accounts, I am convinced, for the phenomenal popularity of former President Duterte, whose assumption of full moral and political responsibility for the liquidations accompanying the so-called “war on drugs,” I examined in this space. The President began, and continues to demonstrate, the confidence of command which includes the power to question, and to scold, and to hold to account –while never conceding any shortcoming of his own.

My next column referred to this report in The Asia Sentinel: A Journalist’s Murder Rattles Manila. The 2019 Esquire Philippines article I mentioned is this one: Who is Gerald Bantag, the Newly Appointed BuCor Chief Facing 10 Counts of Homicide? Relevant online commentary (and see the comments) can be found here, here, and here and here.

The President gave the nation an excuse slip | Inquirer

By: Manuel L. Quezon III@inquirerdotnet

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:35 AM November 02, 2022

In his inaugural address, just four months ago, the President said, “I will not predicate my promise to you on your cooperation. You have your own lives to live, your work to do — and there too I will help. Government will get as much done alone without requiring more from you. That is what government and public officials are for. No excuses; just deliver. It was like that, once upon a time. [Cheers]”

It is the particular genius of this administration that it harnessed the power of nostalgia to propel itself back to power. Genius because it seized on a particular kind of nostalgia not based on actual, selective, memory (since our population is so overwhelmingly young), but rather, a derived, implanted, nostalgia. That old pedant Ferdinand Marcos Sr. of the good grades and photographic memory once tried to master history. His son seized on the easier and more satisfying because essentially undebatable solution of simply trying to tell a more crowd-pleasing story.

Hence, “once upon a time,” which means those looking for the telltale signs of history will forever be frustrated. Consider what to me is the most puzzling part of our recent typhoon experience. It wasn’t the bureaucracy, including its politically appointed leadership. From the Cabinet on down, they acted true to form. They put on vests emblazoned with the logos and initials of their respective agencies and went ahead and did the things they’re supposed to do, while the component parts of what passes for the communications infrastructure of the government did their part too, including itemizing “presidential directives.” Taken as read, the various agencies including the communication agencies of the government itemized plenty of goings-on.

Neither was it the President. Our presidents don’t seem to have quite figured out how to dress down to show they’re in emergency mode: some wear jackets, others settle for polo shirts. What is universally considered central is that chief executives should be seen. And they should be seen presiding, then instructing, followed by their being seen to be inspecting. In times of calamity, all the chatter boils down to two questions all our recent presidents are interrogated on: do they know what they are doing, and are they doing enough? If there is a deficiency in either of the two, could it be because they don’t care?

So the President’s behavior wasn’t puzzling, either. He presided. He instructed. He inspected. That the President decided to preside over the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council conference via teleconferencing, instead of doing so in person, was different. The relative informality of his location was curious, to the extent that government found it difficult to simply state where he was and why he decided to preside remotely. So aside from scrutinizing the questions he asked and the comments he made, his very location, down to the kind of electrical outlets seen behind him, ended up dissected online for what it might possibly reveal. The President himself seemed to think he put the peanut gallery in its place by offhandedly scoffing, “Welcome to Hokkaido” when he finally interacted with the press. No one in his official family can do anything about that because there is no designated point person able to backstop the President and serve as the focal point — the chief storyteller — of his administration. The acting press secretary tried. But the agency she (temporarily) presides over is in flux. The acting executive secretary is too old. The acting secretary of social welfare and development could be the one, except he himself is still learning the ropes.

What is puzzling to me is how scarce the First Lady and her children have been. The presidency is a package deal. The Marcoses in their pre-1986 heyday, harkening back to their predecessors, knew family solidarity was expected during times of calamity: the president thus assumed the role of field marshal of operations, while the first lady provided empathy and compassion; even the children were drafted to prove they were both dutiful and useful, whether rolling bandages or packing relief goods. The First Family is fortunate that it’s been two decades since we had a first lady, so both memory and expectations of that informal office are pretty much extinct: We saw the First Lady at the MassKara Festival, and donning a witch’s hat at a Palace Halloween children’s party.

But these are all questions of executive style. Just because you lived through it once doesn’t seem to mean you internalized it going into the second time around. What upset me more is the latest manifestation of a phenomenon that became apparent after President Marcos Jr. won last June. It’s of those formerly committed to change, who have changed by announcing they are no longer committed to the common good because the common people turned their back on the chance for good governance and servant leadership. Let the people, this thinking goes, ask the Marcoses the next time they need help. In this calamity, what I found remarkable was there seemed less enthusiasm to help.

Those of a kinder, more understanding disposition have suggested that, instead, there is “donor fatigue” on the part of the middle class normally so active online in self-organizing to extend relief. High inflation, the toll the pandemic has taken on SMEs and even big corporations must account for some, if not most, of the apparent moderation in enthusiasm to help. This may be so.

While perhaps an emotionally understandable attitude on the part of those who have only now experienced the anguish and disappointment of a losing campaign, it’s still wrong. Concern for fellow citizens might be conditional in some respects — you can only give what you have, to the extent you are able — but compassion in times of calamity cannot and should not be predicated on whether the public was like-minded in the last election. “Let’s see what the Tallano gold can buy you now,” or “If you need help, ask the ones with intelligence funds” is a malicious response none of our fellow citizens deserve.

The President and his people could have made a devastating response to criticisms by seizing on this freely expressed change of heart among some of his critics. Except his own assumption of power marked a return to a more passive relationship with the authorities when it comes to unexpected events: the President himself has given the nation a free pass on civic engagement.

Interesting readings

Philippine Independence in U.S. History | Pacific Historical Review | University of California Press
In 1946, the United States freed its largest colony, the Philippines. This article examines the decision-making behind that and argues that the road to freedom was not straight. The 1934 law scheduling independence was motivated mainly by protectionism, racism, and a sense that the Philippines was a military liability. Moreover, it contained many loopholes. Between its passage and the scheduled date for independence, Washington’s original reasons for freeing the Philippines had nearly all vanished, and high-ranking colonial officials sought to derail the independence process. Nevertheless, the Philippines was freed, because Washington regarded this act as central to its attempts to legitimize the postwar world order. Putting Philippine independence in the proper chronological context connects it to the history of decolonization and U.S. global hegemony.

The Sorcerers’ Apprentices: Can Georgy Shchedrovitsky be responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Ilya Kukulin looks at the teachings of Soviet thinker Georgy Shchedrovitsky and explains their post-Soviet transformation into a belief that, in the organization of a community, values are an instrumental and secondary matter.

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Manuel L. Quezon III

Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Editor-at-large Views strictly mine. I have a newsletter, blog, podcast, and Patreon.