BASED on a research by Dr. Raymund Narag (2018), we are now officially the most overcrowded correctional facilities in the whole world: our 605-percent congestion rate is far ahead of Haiti’s 320 percent, the second most crowded. For instance, the Quezon City Jail Male Dorm has a rated bed capacity of 286; it now has 3,911 inmates, meaning it is over-congested by 1,000 percent, even after many other Persons Deprived of Liberties (PDLs) had already been transferred to the Quezon City Jail Annex in Bicutan, Taguig. Other jails have likewise recorded 3,000-percent over-congestion. With the current rate in which the police are arresting drug users and tambays, the population growth will continue to rise.
Cognizant of this current state of our Philippine prisons, Bishop Joel Z. Baylon, chairman of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Prison Pastoral Care, on the occasion of Prison Awareness Sunday issued a pastoral letter to help us in our ongoing reflection on the “humanitarian” concerns of our prisons. Bishop Baylon appeals:
Dear Sisters and Brothers in the Lord of Mercy and Love: I was imprisoned and you visited me. (Mt. 25:36) On the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we will celebrate the 31st Prison Awareness Sunday. For this year we have for our theme, “Lord, that I may SEE, HEAR and ACT on the plea for help of your people.”
Once again we are asked to focus particular attention on the plight of our brothers and sisters who are in prison, deprived of liberty and, more often than not, also deprived of even their most basic human rights.
We are all aware, for instance, of the fact that many of our prisons are so congested beyond their normal holding capacity, thereby creating inhuman living conditions. A good number of inmates have been languishing in jails without the benefit of even a preliminary hearing and their right to a day in court. Many prisoners are suffering from many forms of skin diseases, or getting really sick, but do not have the benefit of medical assistance. And there are many more problems that these incarcerated brothers and sisters of ours are facing inside the prisons.
But oftentimes their problems are hidden from our eyes and unheard by our ears. Not many of us have had the occasion to visit a jail for even once in our lives. Some of us are even afraid to do so, our minds and hearts filled with fear and negative impressions, thinking that the prison is a place to avoid. Not too long ago Pope Francis warned “against the hypocrisy of viewing inmates only as criminals beyond hope who deserve to spend their lives in jail”.
“At certain times a certain hypocrisy pushes us to see in prisons only people who have done wrong, for whom the only path is that of the prison,” the Pope said in an interview published on 13 April 2017, forgetting that “we all have the possibility of making mistakes. All of us in one way or another have erred”.
Indeed the prison is a place to avoid, in view of committing crimes. We must never do anything that will make us end up in jail! But it also matters that we get to know, first-hand if possible, about the reality of our prisons and the cries of those inside them. Let us not forget them and their pleas for help because no matter what, these are human beings with inherent rights and privileges.
The Holy Father reminds us further: “when we stay closed in our prejudices, or are enslaved by idols of a false well- being… we do nothing other than stand between the narrow walls of the cell of individualism and self-sufficiency”.
Kung kaya, sa abot ng ating makakaya, let us be aware and concerned of what is going on inside these prison walls. Let us do advocacy work in order to tell our leaders to do something to alleviate prisoners’ living conditions and to respect and uphold their basic human rights. For those of us who can, let us be part of our respective local churches’ prison ministry, and provide a sustained and meaningful program of human, social and spiritual apostolate for these our brothers and sisters in prison.
In the Gospel for this particular Sunday, Jesus heals the blind Bartimaeus and makes him see. Let us ask the Lord to do the same for our hearts, that we may also “SEE, HEAR and ACT” on the pleas of our sisters and brothers languishing in jails, deprived of liberty. Through the intercession of Mary, Mother of us all, may God bless our efforts with meaning, fruitfulness and success!
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