Mabuhay! Ako si Pollo, taga Mexico. This are some very useful words in Tagalog that the inmates in The New Bilibid Prison taught me (yes you read right! Inmates), during the couple of days that I spend with them, inside the biggest prison in the Philippines.
The New Bilibid Prison reservation is the biggest prison run by the government in the Philippines, this prison is the house of nearly 27,000 inmates both women and men. Inside the prison the inmates will be located in the Assessment Rehabilitation Program Development and Monitoring Division; here they will wait for their sentences. After they will be transfer to a Maximum facility compound or to a Medium facility compound depending on the result of their sentence. In the Maximum facility compound you can find more than 16,000 inmates, and in the Medium facility compound you can find nearly 6,000 inmates. In the case of women, they will go directly to the Correctional Institute for Women.
In this prison you will find The Philippine Jesuit Prison Service, a unique ministry of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines and in the world. Here I had the opportunity of meeting Fr. Eli SJ and Fr. Henry SJ two Jesuits from the Philippines that work inside the prison, every day, they share their life with the inmates, they accompany them, they are counselors, they are chaplains and give all the sacraments, including mass, they also have a great advocacy and awareness program for all the people that wants to learn more about this reality. These
are true companions of Jesus working where the need is greater, and spreading the love of God of course with their very own Ignatian Spirituality, to go where nobody wants to go. In this team I could find a lot of young driven people all working for the inmates, in the numerous areas of The Philippine Jesuit Prison Service, they are all working for a better and more human prison system in the Philippines and they are also a truly testimony of God’s love to the inmates, thanks to them, the inmates know that they are not alone. In this amazing team I also found my brother, Justin SJ, a young vibrant scholar of the Society of Jesus, He is about to finish his time here and go back to the United States where He will continue his Jesuit formation, now Theology in California, he is quiet popular in the Prison, he is fluent in Tagalog and Spanish, He counsels the juvenile inmates at the prison hoping that they can go out one day and have a life away of the gangs and drugs that brought them in, he is also an English teacher, whatever I say, is short compare to what he really does.
For security reasons I was only allowed to enter to the Medium facility compound. In the moment you enter, it almost seems unreal, the entrance is short and seems almost like if you were going to school, when you get in you will find an inmate already waiting for you holding an umbrella to block the sun on your head this as a way of respect for your visit, they will escort you to your destination, in my case the catholic chapel. During this journey you will be able to see thousands of people walking all around; they might be playing basketball,
doing some baskets with wood and paper, they will be working on different wood art and painting, you can also found some people talking.
In the moment you enter the Chapel, you will hear the choir singing, and practicing before mass, you will experience how amazing is to see the faith and hope that the inmates have in God, the faith that gives them strength to keep with their life’s, even if they have life sentence in prison, this unique faith that can gather men from all ages, and different gangs and origins in the same place. As the mass is about to start, you will see that in front of God they can find peace, and for an hour of their day, they can rest, and with a Salamat Sa Diyos (Thanks to God) from Fr.Eli S.J. the mass will start, and you will find yourself sitting in the middle of the
chapel in the presence of God.
Maraming Salamat Po! And please join us at PJPS!
above: PJPS staff and volunteers with Pollo, 2nd from right. credit: Jason Inlayo