Life in a Philippine Jail

Every Friday a small team of staff and volunteers drive up the mountains to Talisay City Jail. We do that to visit the ‘minors’, a group of boys aged between 16-18 who are in the jail awaiting hearings and trials. These boys spend up to 20 hours a day in the one cell, which is about 6 metres wide and 2 metres deep. There have been up to 9 boys in there at one time, but only ever 6 wooden beds for them to sleep on. Some of the boys have been living there for almost 3 years, without even being proved guilty. Their hearings are regularly cancelled or postponed, and the city social workers are too busy to chase their cases up. With no family campaigning for them, these boys are almost completely forgotten.

The small cell that the boys share (decorated for Christmas 2011)

Many of them joined gangs at a young age for protection, acceptance and family. Jonald, for example, was kicked out of home at the age of 12 when his mother remarried and her new partner decided that Jonald was too much hassle. He then got caught up in a gang who made him feel like he belonged. They taught him how to handle himself on the streets. However, when he was arrested at 16 for gun possession, his gang and so called ‘family’ disappeared. No one visited him in jail to check up on him, take care of him or even to wish him happy birthday. Most of the other boys in jail have similar heartbreaking stories.

I am not trying to defend the crimes that these boys have done. They have drug offences, gun crimes, theft, and in some cases have even taken lives. However, if no one has taught you that your life has worth, why would you think anyone else’s did? If the only people who had shown you any care and respect were gang members, why wouldn’t you follow their example? These boys don’t need to be shoved in a jail cell and left to become bitter – they need rehabilitation, they need people around them who will invest in them. They need to be noticed and taught, rather than neglected and rejected yet again. How can it be helpful to house a boy who stole a chicken with boys who have committed murder?

Enjoying a Christmas treat, 2012

When Jonald was released, he was given a few pesos for his fare back to the city and that was it. No follow up, no support. Not a single family member or friend turned up on the day he was released. He was completely alone in the big wide world after years behind bars. After sleeping rough for a few days he turned up at the Mercy in Action office asking for help. Our staff were delighted to see him, and to find out he hadn’t immediately got himself immersed in gang culture again. We are working closely with Jonald and it is hoped that a placement and job can be arranged for him soon.

Jonald was fortunate, but many others aren’t. The only options open to a boy released from jail are sleeping rough and finding whatever unskilled work they can, or entering back into their old gang for money, protection and fraternity. The likelihood of reoffending is therefore very high. No matter what they’ve learnt in jail, the pull from their gangs, in absence of any other help or support, is often too strong to resist.

Mercy in Action wants to be there for these boys both inside and outside jail. We befriend them, spend time with them and get to know them as people, not as criminals. We hope to instil some sense of worth and value in them; that their lives don’t have to keep going the way they have in the past. We want to let them know that they can change, reform and have the hope of a future away from drugs, guns and jail. And we want to be with them through every stage, supporting them in jail, pushing their cases through the court and encouraging them to succeed in their new lives on the outside.

Philippines Director, Emily Rosal, with some of the boys at the Christmas 2012 party

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