A jail visit

What can it possibly mean for someone to visit an accused person in jail?  Like Sen. Gloria Arroyo , the Makati school teachers,  who recently brought their pupils on a tour of the city jail where they unwittingly found themselves in a photo session with detained Rep. Romeo Jalosjos, have been chided by Pres. Ramos for sending what are perceived to be the “wrong signals” about crime.   Earlier, a visit from his colleagues from Congress had also been treated negatively by  media.

If even a convicted person does not cease to be worthy of the empathy of others, should an accused person whose crime is yet to be proven deserve less?  One wishes of course that the comfort that people give to those in need were equally allocated among perpetrators and their victims.   Failure to do so may be criticized as lack of prudence or sensitivity, as the nun in the film “Dead Man Walking” found out for herself.  But the show of sympathy itself – “to feel with others what they feel” – is an act of nobility.  It is a recognition of the simple truth that in this world we are all fellow sufferers.

We worry too much and think too little of our justice system when we suspect that a visit from fellow legislators might result in a whitewash of the case against Jalosjos.  Or that an amiable meeting between the congressman and schoolchildren, recorded by photographers, would depict him as incapable of child abuse. There is sufficient public outrage about sexual crimes against children today to ensure continuing vigilant attention on this case.   What we should guard against rather is rushing to judgment to satisfy public preconceptions. It is well to heed Nietzsche’s reminder: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

The teachers have explained their visit to the Makati city jail as part of a regular exposure trip to various government offices.  They were not making a call on Jalosjos, they said, even if they knew he was a detainee there.  It appears that it was the congressman himself who unself-consciously approached and shook hands with them, thus converting what would have been a visit to the zoo into a compassionate reaching-out to a beleaguered human being.  The congressman’s instinct was certainly flawless.

Responding to the President’s displeasure, Education Secretary Ricardo Gloria quickly ordered the teachers to explain how the visit fitted into the educational curriculum.  No admission of any error in judgment was made.  The teachers said it was a way to teach values. Their students came away with the moral lesson that in a democracy, no one is above the law, not even a congressman.  Nothing more has since been heard from Sec. Gloria.  And one hopes that he has not set up an investigating committee to examine the possibility of imposing sanctions on the teachers.

For indeed a visit to the city’s prison can offer a wealth of material for an interesting discussion on values, society, law and morality.   One could begin with the meaning of compassion and sympathy, the many accidents of life, the complex character of crime, the presumption of innocence, and the nature of punishment.  The teacher might ask her students to guess the class origins of the inmates, and to ponder why those from the lower classes seem to be over-represented.

If a jail visit by school kids were to be more than just a patronizing and voyeuristic  event, teachers could even encourage the students to sit down and talk with  some of the detainees.  There they might discover the value of contact and conversation with human beings who have been deprived of human company.  They might also discover and begin to ask how and why many accused people awaiting trial languish in prison for years without actually being convicted.

They might learn something about the value of solitude too —  of spending time with and cleansing one’s self, of revisiting one’s past, of re-describing it so that one becomes what one is.  They might realize that one need not wait until one is detained before setting off on a pilgrimage to one’s self.

And if the teacher were more adventurous, she might then proceed to undertake with her students an analysis of our own current values – why we hold them, the deeper beliefs in which they are rooted, and their actual fate in everyday life.    If this adventure were undertaken honestly, they would most likely come to the realization that many of the values enshrined in the values education program of DECS cannot be defended on strictly philosophical grounds.  One would then have to look at the particular history of our national community to understand fully why certain values, more than others, are important to us.

It is remarkable that the first justification that the teachers offered in defense of their pupils’ visit to the city jail and their chance meeting with Jalosjos pertained to the value that no one is above the law.  It was this value, they said, that they singularly drew from that visit.  The stress on that value is precisely meaningful in the light of its persistent conflict with the nature of power in highly unequal societies like ours. Always, it is the case:  what we cannot realize in practice, we tend to elevate into values.   We pay lip service to them, but we seldom use values to measure the existing institutions of our society.


Comments to <public.lives@gmail.com>