“Losing one’s freedom is the worst part of serving time,” Pope Francis once said.
But there is such a thing as the breath of hope. According to the pontiff, “Hope is a gift from God. We must ask for it. It is placed deep within each human heart in order to shed light in this life…”
“Good afternoon! Maayong hapon!” I called out, mindfully switching from English to the local dialect, Hiligaynon, as I stood in front of the towering gates of the Iloilo City District Jail Male Dormitory in Ungka, Jaro. With my photographer standing close by, I knocked tentatively, my knuckles loudly striking metal heated by the scorching noonday sun. But there ws no immediate response.
I was about to let out a new set of greetings when friendly voices responded. “Diri kamo agi,” the voices beckoned, telling me where to pass through. We looked around, and noticed four women looking at us inquisitively as they sought shade in a small shed. One of them tapped on a small door made inconspicuous by its size. It swung open, and we edged through it, smiling back our thanks. As the door closed on them, I heard conversations resume, the voices alight with anticipation, as their owners settled back into waiting for their turn to go inside and visit.
The District Jail
The tademark lilting tone of the Ilonggo people filled my ears just as two curious jail duards dressed in their smart uniforms greeted us. “Purpose of visit?” They asked politely. “Interview and photoshoot of inmates who make parols for Christmas,” I answered, referring to the traditional Filipino Christmas lanterns.
I surveyed my unusual surroundings and noticed the bursts of verdant foliage blooming the stark facility’s garden. Everything was so lush and green, one wouldn’t think that we were visiting a jail. But as each item inside our bags was carefully scrutinized, and our possessions stowed away in a locker, it dawned on me that we were approaching a place that many enter with dread in their hearts. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to enter a place knowing it would be years before I could step out again, to be free.
Constructed sometime in 1995, the Iloilo City District Jail was initially intended for 200 detainees. At present, it has nearly a thousand men incarcerated in the facility.“Almost 70 percent if the inmates are charged with drug cases,” explained the courteous “Superintendent Vicente Papelera, the District Jail Warden. “The remaining 30 percent is divided among different offenses. Some of them stay here for as long as 12 years,” he added.
A Glimmer in the Dark
We had entered a different world, a world of steel wires, hushed voices, and guarded movements. Shadows lurked in corners as the jail officers walked us to where the men were working on their parols. We approached an unusual entryway – a revolving door made of thick metal mesh. One by one, we clutched at a netted panel and pushed our way in. And there they were, clad in their yellow shirts, the bold letters on their backs announcing their identity to the world: INMATE. Heads swiveled. Discussions stalled. Eyes followed us, and I felt my hands grow cold even as we walked down a sun-dappled path to the recreation area bustling with activity.
Some of the inmates were oblivious to our entrance, engrossed as they worked on slivers of bamboo and shiny textile. Colorful star shaped lantern began to bloom in their hands. Shimmering parols made of banig, capiz shells, and paper hung from the ceiling. These works of art were set to light up Iloilo’s streets, ushering Christmas into the City of Love with their warm, soft glow.A livelihood project that has been ongoing for almost six years, the detainees eagerly look forward to the start of the “ber” months that signal the beginning of the productive parol-making season. “The city government tapped the inmates of Iloilo City District Jail to be the ones to manufacture the lanterns,” said Jail Officer 1 Joelbert Muñoz.
“It’s a big income for our inmates,” Papelera chimed in. “Last year, they earned over P341,000. I think this year their income will even double… Their lanterns will decorate all local government agencies and be seen on the establishments of private sectors, too.”
“Yes, the income goes to the inmates,” Papelera smiled, seeing the questioning look on my face. “We only facilitate the transaction. Even those who don’t work on the parols also get some amount. All of them benefit. Especially at Christmas, the funds intended for their food are taken from this income.”
Beauty and Sadness
While I marveled at the intricate designs of the parols made by Michael, a 38-year-old inmate, he explained that he was in charge of creating some of the most elaborate ones. A former house painter, Michael has always been inclined to art. “If someone from the private sector orders lanterns, I’m the one who makes the design,” he said in Hiligaynon, smiling shyly, with a tinge of pride.
After discussing his work, I gathered the nerve to ask about the elephant in the room. “Will you be getting out of this place anytime soon?” I asked gently, and he looked down. Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, carefully keeping his distance, he said, “Sentensyado na… life.” He meekly wrung his hand – hands that have known sadness, that are also capable of creating such beauty.
His family initially did not know that he was in jail. “My siblings were ashamed of me. They are all professionals – my older sibling is an engineer,” he said. “I’m the only one who got involved in drugs.”
“What will you do with your income from the parols?” I asked. “I will take it with when I go away,” he explained. Seeing my obvious confusion, he turned away. “Next year, if the send me to Munti… I’ll have have pocket money for food,” he said simply, referring to the notorious New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City, the main penitentiary in the Philippines that is known for housing hardened criminals. I falter, uncertain if I would be able to handle knowing the details of a crime that has put him away for life. And I cautiously chose to focus on the task at hand.
So I asked, “What’s your Christmas wish?” Still not meeting my eye, Michael said, “Just as long as we are all in good health, ma’am, then all is well for me.”
Flicker of Hope
I was impressed by how quietly and efficiently the men worked, and I lookerd around to see who was in charge. That was when the warden politely called over a man who watched us closely from the sidelines.
“Thank you, sir,” Stephen, 48, nodded to Papelera after I was introduced. Because if Stephen’s confident stance, I instinctively lifted my right hand to shake his—and then suddenly uncertain, I dropped it midway—unsure if I was breaking some sort of code. Instead, I pointed at a bench with vivid yellow lettering along one side. “Chairman,” it read. “Is that you?” I asked. “Yes,” he grinned, his eyes crinkling. Feet apart, his gestures wide and open, he expressed how he wished to be with his loved ones for Christmas. “That’s what everyone yearns for, to get out of here and be with their family,” he answered in local dialect. “I did something wrong, that’s why I’m here. Once I’m out, I’m going back to living my life right,” he said, a corner of his mouth lifting in a half smile. “I can’t just stay here forever or keep coming back,” he added.
“We show them that there are still people here inside, there are productive and contributing members of society here inside.”
I met one more inmate, and with gaze sharp and intelligent, Gerardo, 51, said forcefully, “I seldom see my family on Christmas now that I’m inside. They are very busy with their jobs, their transactions… They don’t have much time for me.” Wiping his brow, he softened. “I have responsibilities to my children. I miss taking the reins for my family, guiding my children and handling the problems that we encounter as a family. I miss taking care of them.” He continued, “Once I’m out, the first thing I plan to do is to go back to my family. I’ll make up for the time I have lost because of my stay here.” A former musician, Gerardo admitted, “I think that I’ll have a hard time getting a job because of course, I’m getting on in years, plus, they would know I’m from here,” he said as he motioned to his surroundings. “I hope we won’t get discriminated when we get out.”
“What do you think can your parols contribute to the city? To the people?” I asked.
Speaking articulately and passionately, he replied in perfect English, “We show them that there are still people here inside, there are productive and contributing members of society here inside. We would like to share that the essence of Christmas is for everybody.” His voice grew smaller, and he took a step back. “I just want to get out of this place and be with my family this Christmas,” he sighed wishfully. “Next year… next year, maybe I will be out of here,” he said, eyes smiling.
I put in my notebook in my bag, inclining by head in thanks to Muñoz, who had efficiently arranged the interview and photo shoot. I shook hands with Papelera, who kindly accommodated our request. They both smiled warmly, these facilitators of hope. And as my photographer and I headed out to the wide, open street, I looked back at the parols, twinking radiantly, fragments of hope shining their light from within.