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A special class of graduates

The graduates of New Bilibid Prison. 

Manila, Philippines -  Not all government scholars are enrolled in state universities. Inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) compound in Muntinlupa, about a thousand of prisoners are hitting the books while serving time.

Like students elsewhere, these government scholars attend classroom lectures, do homework, get accelerated – or flunk – and finally graduate. They even wear uniforms – although theirs is the bright orange prison garb.

They are driven by hopes that they can finish their studies and arm themselves with something better than knives, guns, or gangs – the precious gift of education.

Nandito kami kasi hindi kami nakapagaral, limitado ang pagintindi namin sa mga bagay-bagay, limitado yung oportunidad na meron kami (We’re here because we didn’t go to school, our perceptions are limited, as are our opportunities),” says Jefferson Aguirre, a 30-year-old convicted robber-carjacker who dropped out of school after third grade. “Ngayon iba na. Kahit sa pag-uugali, hindi na masyadong mainitin ang ulo ko. Nag-iisip muna bago umaksyon (Now it’s different, even my character. I’m not so hotheaded, I think before I act).”

Aguirre is among those enrolled at the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) Inmates Education Program, which addresses the prisoners’ needs ranging from functional literacy to a college degree.

According to Aguirre, he immediately enrolled after a court ordered his transfer to the New Bilibid Prison. “Gusto ko makatapos ng pag-aaral (I want to finish my education),” he emphasizes.

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The program is part of BuCor’s rehabilitation program, according to BuCor chief Gaudencio Pangilinan, and it has been in place since the 1990s.

“Education improves a person’s self-esteem – something that is lacking in many here in prison,” Pangilinan says.

More than half of the total 36,000 BuCor prisoners all over the country have only attained elementary education.

“Some of them would claim reaching high school, but when evaluated, we see that they do not possess the skills that a high school level student must possess,” said said Elsa Alabado of NBP’s Reception and Diagnostic Center (RDC).

According to Pangilinan, who assumed his post last July, most penal colonies offer only vocational training and elementary education. Worse, in some prisons, there is no education program at all.

Class valedictorian Archie Bueno poses with his proud family and friends after the ceremony (above). STAR photos by Joey Viduya

Only NBP – out of BuCor’s seven penal colonies – provides better educational training and facilities for the inmates. Only NBP has a college education system – which is only offered to medium security prisoners.

Last month, 31 students from the NBP college finished their studies. The graduating class valedictorian Archie Bueno, 42, wishes that other inmates could realize the importance of education.

Dapat may aim ka, dapat meron kang goal, para maging worthwhile ang stay mo dito sa loob. Kasi pag wala kang natutunan, ano ang babalikan mo pag labas mo (You should have an aim, a goal, so your stay inside could be worthwhile. If you don’t learn anything, what will you go back to when you’re released)?” Bueno says.

Bueno finished a four-year course in business administration from NBP’s college education system, tied up with the University of Perpetual Help System Dalta in Las Piñas.

He received five medals, including awards for academic excellence and extra-curricular activities.

While behind bars, he formed a football team called the Puzakals, which recently gained recognition when they were pitted against the country’s immensely popular football team the Azkals and other foreign teams.

“Who would have thought that someone’s dreams can come true in a place other people consider a nightmare,” Bueno muses.

“But these are not for me. These achievements are for my two children, my fellow inmates, and my parents who I frustrated,” he says, adding that he wants to serve as inspiration to other prisoners who refuse to see the beauty and value of education.

The challenges of educating prisoners are not confined to the limitations of BuCor resources. A large part involves how the inmates perceive education.

According to Alabado, prisoners committed to NBP are detained in the RDC for two months before they are assigned to specific camps. During these 60 days, the inmates are prepared for a life in prison. They undergo exams and seminars and are briefed about the bureau’s programs, including the IEP.

Inmates attend a livelihood seminar conducted by Ateneo de Manila University

“Some would say, kung sa labas hindi kami napilit mag-aral, bakit dito kailangan mag-aral (outside we were not forced to study, why should we study in here),” says Christian Carlo Calalang, a child abuse convict who has been studying in IEP for four years.

Calalang says he has tried to persuade his fellow inmates to go to school, with mixed success.

Kahit pilitin mo kasi kung ayaw nila, ayaw eh. Kasi nasa tao yan. Kung ayaw, bibigyan ka nang napakaraming dahilan (No matter how much you try to make them, if they don’t want it, they have so many excuses. It depends on the person),” Calalang explains.

Bueno notices the same problem, but tries to get around it. “Kaya pag nakakausap ko sila, sinasabi ko sa kanila yung mga benefits na makukuha mo pag naging student ka sa NBP. Mas maluwag sa estudyante (I explain the benefits of being a student at NBP, they’re more lenient).”

Alabado confirms the NBP is more lenient with students. She says they are usually the priority when it comes to exposing inmates to the outside world because “they are more disciplined.”

Celso Bravo, officer-in-charge of NBP’s medium security compound, says while inmates usually behave similarly, he notices that those sent to school are easier to manage.

Mas mababait sila. Iba ang nagagawa ng education sa tao, lalo na sa preso, nagkakaron sila ng respeto at pagpapahalaga sa sarili na kadalasan ay wala ang mga taong ito kaya sila napasok dito (They’re better behaved. Education makes a difference, especially in prison, they gain self-respect),” Bravo says.

To improve on the BuCor’s education system, Pangilinan says they are planning to expand the program in order to enroll “at least 80 percent” of the 36,000 inmates all over the country this coming school year.

NBP School of Fine Arts students create face masks after attending a lecture by a Korean artist.

According to Pangilinan, the BuCor has already tied up with the Department of Education, who has offered to conduct a Philippine Education Placement Test (PEPT) for all the inmates.

“This will assess their educational attainment and which educational program will suit them best,” Alabado explains.

Pangilinan says the BuCor is still in the process of planning how to properly execute the program. Nonetheless, they are looking for more schools that are willing to tie up with them to educate the prisoners.

The NBP will also build more facilities to make studying more conducive to the inmates.

“It sounds really ambitious but we will find a way. If there’s no way, then we will make a way.”

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