WITH the assassination of journalist Percival Mabasa revealing, among other sordid things, that the country’s New Bilibid Prison could be the headquarters of an appalling “Murder Inc.,” Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla now has much public support behind him to pursue his plans to relocate the prison from its present location in Muntinlupa to at least three sites in the Visayas and Luzon.
The country’s national penitentiary was relocated in 1940 from the Spanish-era prison in what is now downtown Manila to Muntinlupa. That area was very sparsely populated and officially rural, with only 10,000 residents because of its hilly terrain, unsuitable for rice farming. Now Muntinlupa is classified as a highly urbanized city with 600,000 residents, and over a million daytime population.
The growth of metropolitan Manila and the building of the South Luzon expressway during the Marcos era spurred the development of Muntinlupa as a residential area for middle- and even upper-class subdivisions and the consequent sites for workers servicing those villages, commercial areas, and small and medium factories. With the country’s population growing fast after the war, so did the crime, expanding Bilibid’s prison population from the 3,000 it was designed to house to over 30,000.
The fact that it was for decades in one location (“territory” as it were) made Bilibid’s population (i.e., prison officials and inmates) develop its own “culture,” a full-fledged institution even if a criminal one. The prisoners had organized themselves into gangs (“tribes”) that struck myriad arrangements (“treaties”) with the “rulers” (guards and their bosses) to keep themselves as comfortable as they could while enriching their jailers.
The amount of funds the prisoners could generate was demonstrated when Mabasa’s killer confessed that he and his team were given P550,000 for the deed, raised by the major gangs upon orders, the police and that National Bureau of Investigation alleged, of the suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) head Gerald Bantag.
When I was President Arroyo’s chief of staff, I was puzzled why there were so many applicants to head the BuCor, even using powerful lobbyists, such as the media and columnists. Why would anyone want a jail warden’s job, I had thought.
I only learned later that the BuCor head’s “gross” was huge. These were from bribes for accommodations to paying prisoners such as prostitutes servicing them, provision of different food and alcoholic drinks, separate living quarters called “kubol,” even one inmate’s personal tennis court, another’s sound studio. These were funneled from the collections of rank-and-file guards and lower officials up the pecking order to the BuCor head and his inner circle. These bribes were estimated to total P50 million annually — practically the “tax” the inmates paid for their comfort and illegal privileges. A sizable number of the 400 inmates who had escaped prison were said to have paid tens of millions each to BuCor officials.
This “gross” was systematically collected from the rank-and-file guards up through the pecking order of officials to the BuCor head and his inner circle.
If he were corrupt and earning that much money as BuCor head, Bantag — tagged by government investigators as the mastermind in the killing — certainly would have millions of pesos worth of motives to order Mabasa’s killing, especially at this time that he, appointed by the previous administration, most likely was lobbying with the government to keep his post.
Journalist Mabasa perhaps may have accused him of such bribery in past episodes of his radio program or was planning to do so. Bantag cleverly could have asked the Bilibid gangs to foot the bill for the assassination.
I was told that the huge bribes generated by BuCor have been one major reason why proposals to relocate it have not been pushed through even if its area of 500 hectares would now be worth P200 billion, if sold to the private sector to fund the transfer. BuCor or the Justice department profiting immensely with the status quo would manage to delay it, even extending bribes to Justice department officials to drag their feet in implementing a relocation plan. It would take an official with such high moral standards approaching a saint to refuse a bribe of P50 million just to delay the Bilibid’s transfer especially as there are so many reasonable reasons to delay it.
Then Justice secretary Leila de Lima announced a plan approved by the Regional Council of Central Luzon to Laur, Nueva Ecija, to be built under the public-private partnership scheme. She made the announcement in January 2015, and said the plan would be implemented starting September that year, to be completed in three years. I cannot find any other report on the plan on the internet on whatever happened to it.
One impediment to Bilibid’s relocation is that President Corazon Aquino ordered 100 hectares of Bilibid’s original area to be converted into a Katarungan Village to house Justice department employees and officials. While the ownership status of the lots acquired by these employees is unclear, they have been resisting Bilibid’s sale, thinking their residences would be included in such a transfer.
Relocating Bilibid would be the start of demolishing that criminal institution as the 30,000 inmates would be divided and sent to separate prisons.
Remulla at his congressional confirmation hearings said his office has been studying three facilities to replace Bilibid. One would involve the conversion of the Mega Drug Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, into a minimum-security prison. Second would be a medium-security facility in Tanay, Rizal, owned by the BuCor so it need not buy the land for it. The third would be a maximum security prison at the Sablayan penal colony in Occidental Mindoro. These hardcore prisoners have actually been the source of gang leaders and even ordinary members, who prey on those convicted for minor offenses.
It is such a vivid demonstration of the weakness of our state that such an obvious necessity as transferring Bilibid elsewhere hasn’t been undertaken, even if it is dangerously inside a densely populated area with malls, and being in effect the most expensive prison in the world given the price of the area it sits on. I hope the government proceeds to transfer the prison before a deadly riot, such as the one that occurred in 1980 at the New Mexico State Penitentiary that took 33 lives, happens.
Relocating Bilibid could be one of President Marcos Jr.’s major legacies to be remembered and appreciated well. Fast-track it ASAP. Justice Secretary Remulla seems to me tough and decisive enough to undertake the project, especially with the delicate matter of fairly undertaking the sale or lease of the land to competing oligarchs. Mabasa’s heinous murder may yet result in something very good for the nation.
Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao
Book orders: www.rigobertotiglao.com/shop