The Grand New Bilibid Hotel

Following the Department of Justice’s raid of the detention quarters of the New Bilibid Prison’s very important prisoners last Monday, President Aquino expressed great alarm over the discovery of firearms in the possession of these dangerous detainees. But, it was not the weapons that caught the public’s eye so much as the opulent furnishings these cramped private spaces called “kubol” contained.

The early-morning raiding team led by no less than Justice Secretary Leila de Lima found prisoners luxuriating in carpeted rooms fitted with a 50-inch flat-screen television set, a split-type air conditioner, a home theater system, a sauna facility, a Jacuzzi whirlpool bath, a kitchen with a dining table, wireless Internet access, closed-circuit television cameras and monitors, routers and signal boosters. Apart from guns, these private dens yielded laptops, cell phones and assorted electronic gadgets, broadband sticks, luxury watches and footwear, expensive liquor, illegal drugs, money-counting machines, and large amounts of cash. To call these quarters “kubol” is to misuse words in order to make their referents invisible. A kubol in prison language is a tiny makeshift enclosure that symbolically demarcates boundaries more than it offers physical protection against intrusion.

In the late 1970s, I used to frequent the NBP to visit a dear friend and fraternity brother, Nilo Tayag, the most wanted student activist of our generation. Charged by the Marcos martial law regime with subversion, rebellion, and other common crimes, this founding leader of the Kabataang Makabayan was sent to Muntinlupa, instead of being held in detention in military camps. He welcomed being jailed with common criminals because this kept him from being subjected to indefinite torture. The sheer size of the Bilibid prison population also shielded him from constant surveillance.

Jailers and prisoners respected his status as a political detainee. Muntinlupa’s prison gangs did not force him to join them. Inmates regularly approached him for help in composing letters of appeal to the authorities. In exchange, his fellow prisoners gave him a kubol in one corner of a common cell, and looked after him.

Nilo’s kubol was exactly the size of his bed. Shrouded day and night by a mosquito net, that tiny space contained his library, his clothes, some canned food, his eating utensils, and a pail that held his bathing essentials. Neatly held together by bookends beside his pillow, the books by Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara kept his mind from wilting during his decade-long incarceration. He maintained a discipline of reading as though he were enrolled in a graduate course.

I never asked how Nilo was able to bring those books into prison. But I could imagine what it was like for him to be able to retreat into his private space—the length of his bed—and read his books at the end of a long day. He must have continued reading with the aid of a flashlight long after the lights inside the cell had been switched off.

One finds sanctuaries like these in nearly every ward and compound of the NBP. They are for sale, and obviously not everyone can afford them. Some inmates rent them out for brief conjugal use when visiting spouses need precious moments of intimacy. A recent report estimates that there are today about 3,790 such spaces inside the NBP. Regardless of the size, each kubol is a crude simulation of an inmate’s favorite room at home—the bedroom, the living room, the kitchen, the basement den, or all of these rolled into one. You can easily tell the economic and social status of an inmate by the size and the furnishings of the kubol he keeps.

The sociologist Erving Goffman, who studied prisons and mental asylums, called these practices “secondary adjustments”—forms of adaptation to the exigencies of “total institutions.” The “primary adjustments” are those of obedience and conformity to the rules and routines of such systems. Beneath the fulsome display of normalcy in such total institutions, Goffman observes, is an “underlife” that grows in proportion to the inmates’ need to resist complete colonization by the system. Even in the most controlled situations, he writes, the most determined inmates will find ways to exploit the defects and loopholes of what is supposed to be a closed system.

Nearly all the classic studies that have theorized about prisons—Gresham Sykes’ “The Society of Captives,” Erving Goffman’s “Asylums,” and Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”—have depicted the prison system to be very much a mirror image of the larger society from which it is supposed to distance itself. One finds the same disciplinary and punitive techniques being used to varying degrees in a wide range of social settings like schools and work organizations. Far from flattening the class hierarchies drawn from the outside world, prisons allow them to flourish. The chief source of vulnerability is, all too often, the prison staff itself. What disciplinary powers they wield vanish in a market where all kinds of privileges can be purchased at the right price.

Most of the time, all it takes for underpaid prison officials to earn extra income is a willingness to look the other way when contraband slips from one hand to another. So long as prisoners do not escape under their watch, everything else disappears from the radar screen and thus becomes negotiable.

One has to bear this willful blindness in mind to understand how NBP Superintendent Roberto Rabo could shamelessly claim he was not aware of the existence of the luxury suites for privileged prisoners inside the penitentiary he was supposed to be supervising.

* * *