A visit to Muntinlupa the other day in connection with a TV documentary I am doing on prison life turned into a review of the screaming headlines of the past decade.  Like the “public morality lesson” that punishment was meant to be in the Classical Age, the New Bilibid Prison became for me a book to be read.

I spotted Rep. Romeo Jalosjos, convicted for statutory rape,  walking back towards his cell with a couple of bodyguards.  The building that housed Mayor Antonio Sanchez, convicted rapist-murderer of Eileen Sarmenta, was pointed out to me.  I met Steve Wisenhunt, convicted killer of Elsa Castillo, the “chop-chop lady”.  I talked to Claudio Teehankee Jr., convicted killer of Maureen Hultman.  The man has turned into his own lawyer, and to this day he protests that he is innocent, a victim of media play.

I visited the sawali hut that convicted gunrunner Congressman Jun de Guzman built and left behind, now used by Ambet Antonio, convicted killer of basketball star Arnie Tuadles.  I saw the bed on which the ailing Governor Dulay had lain for six years before he died.  I talked to Juanito Itaas and Donato Continente, both detained for the murder of Col. James Rowe.  I had lunch with Sgt. Arnulfo de Mesa, the stocky Avsecom soldier who held Ninoy Aquino’s arm while he struggled to get up from his plane seat on that fateful day of August 21st.  I listened to Master Sergeant Pablo Martinez, now a pastor of a born-again group, vividly describe the two days he spent with Rolando Galman in a hotel room before escorting him to the airport tarmac.  To this day, both men insist on what they saw – that Galman shot Aquino.  But Martinez reveals new information that supports the theory of a conspiracy.

A visit to a prison is a depressing and a draining experience.  At the prison hospital, I talked to an 89-year-old man who has done 7 years of a life sentence for rape.  With both eyes blinded by severe cataract, he got up from his bed and summoned his last strength to tell me in halting Cebuano and English the tale of his innocence. This old man has been so wasted by illness he would be lucky to live another year. One wonders when society would finally satisfy itself and decide that in such a case, there has been enough punishment.

All prisons talk of reform and rehabilitation.  Such talk belongs however to the vocabulary of a humanistic age when the punishment must not only to correspond precisely to the nature of the offense in degree of severity, but must also address the motivating cause of the crime.  As Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish, 1982) saw it: “Exact relations are required between the nature of the offense and the nature of the punishment; he who has used violence in his crime must be subjected to physical pain; he who has been lazy must be sentenced to hard labor; he who has acted despicably will be subjected to infamy.”

There was a time when the punishment of crime was one big morality play.  Prisoners with their bright orange uniforms and their closely shaven heads would be seen doing hard work on roads, canals, and public parks.   “Thus, the convict pays twice, by the labor he provides and by the signs he produces,” writes Foucault.  Today, no prisoner is compelled to do hard labor.  In Muntinlupa, all the handicrafts-making and farming from which prisoners derive supplementary income are voluntary.  Most prisoners pass the day praying or playing pool, washing clothes or preparing meals.  This is a far cry from the concept of prison as a productive factory popularized in Europe in the early 19th century, when solitary work was seen as a road to spiritual conversion.

It would seem at first glance that today’s prisons punish precisely by enforcing a regime of idleness.  For indeed few things are probably more terrifying than the prospect of being grounded and confined to do nothing.  But Foucault offers a different view of the evolution of the modern prison.  He says that there are three concepts of punishment in history: torture during the period of the absolute monarch, public works in the time of humanism, and incarceration in the modern period.  Each one of these corresponds to a concept of the object to be punished.

In the first, the site of punishment was the physical body.  In the second, it was the soul or the mind.  But in the third or modern period, the object on which the whole system of disciplinary technology is to be inscribed is the whole body.  How does it work?  First, of all, discipline separates, differentiates, and decomposes the uniform mass of prisoners into segments.  These segments are assigned their respective places in a grid.  They are then subjected to a military type of discipline that is constant and regular.  Finally, a mechanism of continuous surveillance is installed.  The whole purpose of this, Foucault says, is the production of “docile bodies.”  On this visit to the New Bilibid Prisons, I began to understand the rationale for the spatial segregation of gangs and linguistic communities into self-governing units.  “Discipline ‘makes’ individuals;” says Foucault, “it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as subjects and as instruments of its exercise.”

It was a little after five in the afternoon when I wound up the last of my interviews.  I had almost forgotten I was talking to inmates.  There were no chains, no handcuffs, no uniforms to remind us of the identities that imprisonment assigns to its objects.  A guard approached me and politely asked if he could now take the prisoners back with him because the main gates were about to close.  I looked at my guests, we shook hands, and they quietly followed the guard.  In that instant, I remembered Foucault.


Comments to <>