What do political prisoners do while in jail? Organize.
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
BATANGAS CITY – What does one do while confined within the four walls of prison? How does one deal with the dreaded buryong (extreme boredom) afflicting prisoners? For political detainees, the answer is simple. They continue with the work they have been doing before they were imprisoned: Organize, organize, organize.
“Wherever we are, we always keep in mind that there are people who need to be organized. So here inside jail, we continue with what we have been doing outside,” said Romiel Canete, who was arrested on June 3, 2010 after the 743rd Combat Squadron of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) raided the house where they were staying in Taysan, Batangas. Canete is one of the “Taysan 3” together with Maricon Montajes and Ronilo Baez. They were arrested in Taysan, Batangas while integrating with farmers and Montajes was also doing her research.
Being true to what they believed in, the jailed activists continued with their advocacy for justice and human rights while inside jail. By educating other prisoners on their rights, the political prisoners earned the respect of their fellow inmates.
Charity Dino, a teacher and volunteer organizer of Samahan ng mga Magsasaka ng Batangas (Batagas Farmers Organization) has been languishing in jail for almost four years now. She is now the mayora who manages the prisoners in the whole provincial jail and prisoners now address her as ma’am.
Dino together with Billie Batrina and Sonny Rogelio were abducted by elements of 730th Combat Group of the Philippine Air Force on Nov. 23, 2009 while preparing for Peasant’s Week in Talisay, Batangas. They are referred to as the Talisay 3. They are volunteer organizers of SMB and are now charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. They were held for 15 days by the military before they were transferred to the BPJ. They were physically and mentally tortured.
Other political prisoners in BPJ are Alberto Custodio, Junver Tirasol and Felipe Mendoza.
Dino went through mental and physical torture when they were abducted by soldiers of the Philippine Air Force. In her account, she revealed that she was tortured for 15 days. Her captors beat her up, slammed her head against the cement wall and applied electric shock several times. She was undressed and humiliated by her captors.
Even when she was finally transferred to the BPJ, her nightmares continued. “I still have nightmares about the torture I underwent at the hands of my captors,” she said in an interview with Bulatlat.com.
During the first few months of her incarceration, Dino said, she struggled on. “I had a difficult time recovering from my torment. It was the most dreadful thing that happened to me,” she said. I still experience anxiety attacks because the Philippine Air Force had put up their detachment inside the vicinity of BPJ. “I sometimes have difficulty breathing.”
Batrina also suffered the same ordeal. He was also tortured and electrical shocks were applied to different parts of his body. “I prayed before all the saints when my captors were torturing me,” Batrina told Bulatlat.com who still manages to smile while recounting his ordeal.
“During our first week in jail, we were not allowed to integrate with the other inmates and it was difficult,” Batrina said.
“In the middle of the night, soldiers would take us from our cells and interrogate us, often forcing us to identify the persons in pictures laid out in front of us,” said Montajes.
She was even told by a soldier to write an article that they are being treated well inside the jail. “Of course I did not do that. I told them to respect our recovery since we are still suffering from trauma after soldiers from the 743rd Combat Squadron of the PAF indiscriminate fired at the house where we were staying,” Montajes told Bulatlat.com
Dino said that at the BPJ, they are tagged as high-risk prisoners. As such, they are prohibited from roaming around the vicinity of the prison. Also, Montajes said, when they arrived at the BPJ, the jail guards reinforced the barbwire on the jail walls. The other inmates were told not to talk to them because they are “members of the New People’s Army.”
But the other inmates refused to follow the admonition of the jail officials. In fact, Dino said, the inmates even questioned jail officials why she was not immediately appointed as mayora.
Canete said that in their three years in the BPJ, they were able to organize the regular inmates and made them aware of their rights as prisoners and as Filipinos.
Just this past month, the Batangas 9 led the opposition against the transfer of the BPJ management to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). According to Canete, Batangas Gov. Vilma Santos wanted the management of the BPJ transferred from the local government to the BJMP to resolve the drug and crime problems inside the jail. A memorandum of agreement was about to be signed between the local government and BJMP but the prisoners strongly opposed it.
“We held a protest action because the prisoners were not even consulted. We wrote a letter to the city council and held a petition signing against the transfer,” said Canete. All the more than 500 prisoners signed the said petition. They also hanged streamers and posters and held discussions with other inmates on why they should oppose the transfer.
Canete explained, “The political detainees will be greatly affected by the supposed transfer of management. First, the rules for visitors will be stricter. There will be no more conjugal visits. The ration of food will also be affected.”
“We are not just wasting our time here in jail. Even if we are detained, we still strive to be productive,” Canete added.
Batrina and Dino said that integrating with the other inmates made their recovery from torture possible. “They kept asking why we were imprisoned. So we told our stories and in that we way, we were able to have an outlet for releasing our emotions. We never felt alone,” Batrina said.
Dino also said, “The inmates became my shock absorber. I released all my emotions to them; I shared my stories with them. It helped a lot in my recovery. And these inmates also experienced torture so they understood what I went through.”
Free the prisoners
The political prisoners also helped the other inmates with their livelihood. Two years ago, the women prisoners were able to put up a lending cooperative benefiting not only the inmates but the jail guards as well. It was Dino who was tasked to manage the cooperative.
“When the warden learned of our plan to set up a cooperative, he gave us seed capital and it prospered since,” said Dino. Inmates are able to get the things they need, such as personal care items, from the cooperative to be paid at easy terms at a later date,” she said.
The Batangas 9 also provide legal advice to other prisoners. They help the inmates with their cases. Inmates even confide their personal problems.
They also held computer literacy lessons inside the prison. “At first they thought they would not be able to do it, especially those who had low levels of literacy. We encouraged them and surprisingly, those who were not able to complete their elementary education learned even faster than the others,” Montajes said.
Dino was also able to out a stop to the practice of beating up women prisoners as a form of initiation or punishment. “Prisoners should not be treated like that, they should be treated humanely,” she said.
“We always tell them that they have rights as prisoners.” She said they posted a list of the “Rights of Prisoners.” Jail guards no longer beat up prisoners. The inmates are able to assert their rights.
Because of these, the other inmates support their demand for general, unconditional and omnibus amnesty for political prisoners. They helped in making streamers; printing t-shirts bearing Free All Political Prisoners; they conducted sympathy fasts and some also joined their hunger strikes.
“They want us to be freed. But then I can also see in their eyes that they’re worried about them too,” Dino said.
Last December 2012, inmates honored Montajes and Dino. “They called us from our quarters and gave us two symbolic keys made of cardboard. Written on it are: ‘Thank you for giving us a CHAnce and CONfidence (emphasizing Cha for Charity and Con for Maricon). At the back, they affixed their signatures and pledged to support in the campaign for our release. It was very flattering. We all cried that day,” said Montajes.
Dino and Montajes thanked the inmates before their headcount in the grounds of BPJ. “There was a loud applause. The guards just walked out,” she added.