Esquire (Philippines) - - NOTES & ESSAYS - BY CARO­LINE KENNEDY

“I’m tired of wait­ing. I want them to end it for me. I don’t care what they do to me. I just want it fin­ished.”

The young man’s voice, speak­ing to me from the cor­ner of the cell, lacked all emo­tion.

I watched as his fin­gers groped for a brown plas­tic comb in his jeans pocket and, with de­fi­ant strokes, he at­tempted to sleek back the ob­sti­nate lock of Bryl­creemed hair dan­gling over his eyes. In the gloomy, fetid cor­ner of this tiny room, a wel­come stream of sun­light from the high win­dow fil­tered over one side of his face il­lu­mi­nat­ing his sal­low com­plex­ion.

I was vis­it­ing Death Row at the New Bilibid State Prison in Mun­tilupa in 1970, at the in­vi­ta­tion of the Gov­er­nor, Alejo Santos. I had met Santos, a tall, el­e­gant man with gray­ing hair and freshly man­i­cured nails, at a din­ner party some weeks be­fore. He told me he fol­lowed my col­umn avidly in the Satur­day Mir­ror magazine and asked if I would con­sider writ­ing some­thing about “his prison.”

“De­spite all this,” he ex­plained, swivel­ing his eyes around the op­u­lent in­te­rior of our hosts’ North Forbes Park home, “no one seems to care about my prison. They don’t mind spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars on pri­vate res­i­dences, pub­lic build­ings, cor­po­rate of­fices and high-pro­file projects but nowhere is there money to be found for Bilibid.”

Bilibid was built in 1944, in the then ver­dant sub­urbs south of Manila. In the early days there were only dirt tracks lead­ing to the site. It was con­sid­ered in­hos­pitable ter­ri­tory, over­grown, swampy, and mos­quito-infested, suit­able only to house the ar­chi­pel­ago’s most dan­ger­ous crim­i­nals. It was a for­lorn place where hopes of es­cape were the fu­tile dreams of des­per­ate men. But, by 1968, Manila’s ten­ta­cles were fast spread­ing out into its ru­ral sur­round­ings. Muntinlupa, about 20 miles to the south, was no ex­cep­tion.

Un­der Mar­cos’ pres­i­dency, the rapidly grow­ing mid­dle classes had fu­eled an un­prece­dented build­ing boom. Their greed for large plots of land on which to build their of­ten sump­tu­ous fam­ily com­pounds de­manded more space than the densely packed ur­ban ghet­tos of Manila could of­fer them. And Ala­bang, bor­der­ing the no­to­ri­ous Bilibid Prison, was choice land—easy to build on and within com­mut­ing dis­tance to the city. Within five years it was un­rec­og­niz­able, be­ing swiftly trans­formed from acres of tan­gled un­der­growth into some of Greater Manila’s most sought-after real es­tate, com­plete with fa­cil­i­ties the up­per mid­dle classes had come to ex­pect—swim­ming pools, ten­nis courts, and man­i­cured golf cour­ses. The sound of builders at work, em­a­nat­ing from be­hind the high elec­tric fences of Ala­bang’s nou­veau-riche man­sions, could clearly be heard from in­side the walls of Bilibid on the day of my visit.

Back in the cell, Santos in­tro­duced me to the ner­vous young man in the cor­ner. Eyes down­cast, shift­ing un­com­fort­ably from one foot to the other, he re­placed his comb and prof­fered his hand. He told me his name was Apolo­nio Adri­ano; he was 25 years old and he was one of 12 res­i­dents cur­rently con­fined on Death Row. In a voice hardly above a whis­per, he told me the rea­son for his in­car­cer­a­tion. His crime, by any stan­dards, was hor­rific and un­for­giv­able. He and three of his friends had hacked to death five se­cu­rity guards of the Rice and Corn Ad­min­is­tra­tion when they had tried to pre­vent the four men rob­bing its trea­sury.

“We have all been on Death Row now for…” his eyes lifted to­wards the Di­rec­tor for an an­swer.

“Al­most 10 years, hindi ba?” Santos fin­ished the sen­tence for him.

“Yes, sir….10 years.” Mar­i­ano Domingo, one of Adri­ano’s co-con­spir­a­tors, stepped for­ward, his slip­pers shuffling al­most sound­lessly across the ce­ment floor.

He spoke very lit­tle but his ex­pres­sion, a per­ma­nent scowl, ex­pressed the depth of his anger. But whereas Mar­i­ano was, ac­cord­ing to Santos, still pray­ing for an un­likely last­minute reprieve, Apolo­nio had al­most cer­tainly given up all hope. So far, ev­ery time the dreaded mo­ment had ar­rived where they would come face to face with the silya elec­trika (elec­tric chair), there had al­ways been an 11thhour stay of ex­e­cu­tion and the in­ter­minable wait­ing had be­gun all over again. This cruel game of sus­pense by the au­thor­i­ties, Apolo­nio said, had lit­er­ally driven sev­eral of Death Row’s for­mer in­mates in­sane.

The Row, it­self, was hushed, un­like the other wings of the prison where raised voices, even laugh­ter and singing, could be heard. Although there was no soli­tary con­fine­ment here the in­mates were un­der the con­stant scru­tiny of heav­ily armed war­dens. They were per­mit­ted to walk around in­side and chat qui­etly to each other but they were not al­lowed to leave the main cell with­out per­mis­sion. Any in­fringe­ment and they would im­me­di­ately be locked up in soli­tary and their few priv­i­leges re­moved.

“But there’s noth­ing to talk about.” Mar­i­ano’s frown eased for a mo­ment. “What can we say to one an­other with a death sen­tence hang­ing over our heads? What can we say to each other when our fam­i­lies have for­got­ten us— when they don’t visit us any­more?”

The only thing these men had in com­mon, it seemed, was their ul­ti­mate fate—the elec­tric chair, or “death seat,” as they called it. It had been trans­ported from the Old Bilibid Prison in Sam­paloc, down­town Manila, where death by elec­tric chair was first in­tro­duced by the United States in 1888. It was now sit­u­ated at some dis­tance from the present cell­blocks, in a stark con­crete cham­ber, on the other side of the prison. Most of the in­mates had never even seen it. But, de­spite many de­scrip­tions from those few who had, Apolo­nio said he still couldn’t or, per­haps, didn’t want to vi­su­al­ize

what it looked like. The only cer­tainty was its per­ma­nent, omi­nous pres­ence and that one day soon each of the 12 men would have their chance to see it for the very first and very last time. This is the only thing they shared—this was the re­cur­ring night­mare of Death Row.

Apolo­nio in­tro­duced me to one of Death Row’s most re­cent oc­cu­pants, Jaime Jose, a slen­der, shy boy who, de­spite his 22 years, dis­played no hint of a beard. Jaime, along with three of his friends, had been con­victed of ab­duct­ing and gang rap­ing a young ac­tress, Mag­gie de la Riva. Ab­duc­tion and rape were two of the 24 of­fenses cur­rently pun­ish­able by death un­der the Mar­cos regime and so the Court, ig­nor­ing the de­fen­dants’ plea for le­niency, had shown them lit­tle mercy. On the sixth of Fe­bru­ary 1971, a lit­tle more than a year after my visit, it would hand down its ver­dict— death by elec­tric chair with no right of ap­peal.

Although it was ob­vi­ous from the way the oth­ers treated him that Jaime was the star per­son­al­ity on Death Row, he ap­peared lonely, in­tro­verted and sub­dued. There was no doubt he had brooded long and hard over his ac­tions that night of heavy drink­ing four years ear­lier and re­gret­ted it.

“I’m not an an­i­mal,” he mur­mured to me, al­most as an aside, “I just don’t re­mem­ber what hap­pened.”

I asked him if he’d ever thought of writ­ing to the vic­tim to apol­o­gize. He nod­ded. “Many times but the oth­ers—they said, no, don’t do it, it’ll prove you’re guilty. I just wish I hadn’t lis­tened to them.”

Within a year of the ver­dict be­ing an­nounced, amid a car­ni­val at­mos­phere and in the full glare of TV cam­eras al­lowed into the death cham­ber to film an ex­e­cu­tion for the very first time, Jaime Jose and two of his co- de­fen­dants were elec­tro­cuted. Although I re­fused to watch the “fes­tiv­i­ties” on tele­vi­sion that day, I shed a tear for the shy, slen­der boy I had met on Death Row. It sad­dened me that the au­thor­i­ties had cho­sen to ig­nore the fact that Jaime had shown gen­uine re­morse and, thus, was very un­likely to re-of­fend. They also re­fused to take into ac­count that he was only a boy when the crime was com­mit­ted and un­der the in­flu­ence of bad com­pany and al­co­hol. I felt that, if only given the op­por­tu­nity and with his new found “celebrity” sta­tus, he could have forged a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in any area he cared to choose. Iron­i­cally, due to the huge amount of pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing the case, it was his vic­tim’s ca­reer that took off and, for some years after the event, Mag­gie de la Riva be­came one of Manila’s hottest ac­tresses.

An­other man joined Alejo Santos and me as we made our way around the cells. Alejo in­tro­duced him as the for­mer movie star, Pan­cho Pe­la­gio. Pan­cho was a large man, with broad shoul­ders, an ex­pand­ing belly and a con­ta­gious laugh. He wasted no time in telling me he had mur­dered some­one in a fit of anger. That, he said, was why he was here on Death Row. He seemed al­most proud of the fact. I gulped. I wasn’t quite sure what to think. And then, just as swiftly, he pat­ted me on the back, guf­fawed and said, “I’m jok­ing, of course!”

Smil­ing at my ob­vi­ous dis­com­fort, Pan­cho slid his arm up my back and around my shoul­der. I au­to­mat­i­cally stiff­ened. We walked out into the prison grounds. I was glad for a bit of sun­light and fresh air.

“Did you be­lieve me then?” Pan­cho asked, his eyes twin­kling at his prac­ti­cal joke.

I felt off-bal­ance. “I’ve no idea what to be­lieve,” I replied. And I hadn’t.

“He’s an ac­tor, re­mem­ber, Caro­line,” Santos in­ter­rupted. “Maybe he even acted in court. Who knows?” He winked at Pan­cho who clutched his ill-fit­ting trousers and erupted into one of his belly laughs.

“No, the truth is, Caro­line, I planned a rob­bery. I was the look-out. I waited at the gate.”

“That’s your story, Pan­cho,” An­other young man had joined our group and butted in. He held his hand out to me, “Ex­cuse me, m’am, my name is Dom­i­nador. Dom­i­nador Aguilar. Don’t lis­ten to Pan­cho.”

“But it’s true.” Pan­cho scowled at the in­ter­loper. “The judge be­lieved me. My friends went in­side the house—and my other friend went to hail a taxi down the road so we could make a quick get­away. I stayed at the gate, watch­ing out.”

“And... what hap­pened?” I re­laxed briefly. I was cu­ri­ous now.

“Pan­cho saw some­one com­ing out of the house. Not his friends. So he ran.”

Dom­i­nador’s voice was brim­ming with sar­casm. He was ob­vi­ously en­joy­ing him­self.

“Yes, I ad­mit. I was afraid.” Pan­cho re­torted, “I thought this guy would call the po­lice. So I left.”

“Not very brave, huh?” Dom­i­nador taunted. “Big Pan­cho, brave Pan­cho, ran away! Just like he did in the movies!”

“And did he?” I asked. “Did he what?” Pan­cho was stalling, de­lib­er­ately keep­ing me in sus­pense. “Call for the po­lice, of course?”

“He did. The oth­ers were just mak­ing their get­away in the taxi and sud­denly the road was blocked by a jeep­ney com­ing from the op­po­site di­rec­tion. A man got out and walked to­ward their taxi. One of my friends rec­og­nized him as a po­lice of­fi­cer. They shot him. Pumped him with bul­lets. He was killed.”

“So you had noth­ing to do with the mur­der?” I asked...

“Noth­ing what­so­ever—hon­est.” Pan­cho be­gan stroking my shoul­der a lit­tle too in­ti­mately to be re­as­sur­ing. I wanted to be­lieve him be­cause I was not quite sure how I would re­spond if I knew a cold-blooded killer had his hand so close to my neck. A lit­tle fur­ther, I imag­ined, and his fin­gers could be ca­ress­ing my throat.

I turned to Santos for pro­tec­tion. But he had stopped briefly to speak with a guard who was hov­er­ing over a group of pris­on­ers at the edge of the path. Dom­i­nador, too, had lin­gered be­hind to min­gle with the group. I could see now why Pan­cho had taken this op­por­tu­nity to be a lit­tle too fa­mil­iar with me. I moved slightly away from him.

Pan­cho fol­lowed close be­hind. “You know, Caro­line,” he whis­pered into my ear, “I have your pic­ture on the wall of my cell. The one with you and Leopoldo Sal­cedo—from your film, El Ti­gre. I’m not the only one. Other guys in here have your pho­tos too.”

I tried to com­pose my­self. “Re­ally? I’m flat­tered.” Truth was I felt more awk­ward than flat­tered. I wasn’t sure if the sex­ual vibes I thought I was sens­ing from Pan­cho were real or imag­ined. Were they the un­der­stand­able act of a preda­tory male re­moved from the com­pany of women for the past 12 years or the slightly masochis­tic fan­tasy of a young girl in an all-male en­vi­ron­ment? I de­cided it was in my mind. Pan­cho was prob­a­bly just try­ing to be hos­pitable. He had ob­vi­ously been given or­ders by Santos to look after me and he was sim­ply car­ry­ing out his task. Noth­ing sin­is­ter in­tended.

I changed the sub­ject. “So what was your sen­tence?”

“I’ve spent 12 years on Death Row just wait­ing for my ex­e­cu­tion.”

Thank­fully, Santos caught up with us at that point. “Pan­cho’s ap­peal will come up very soon and we’re hop­ing the Supreme Court will mod­ify his con­vic­tion from rob­bery with homi­cide to sim­ple rob­bery. Isn’t that right, Pan­cho?”

“Yes,” the ac­tor grinned. “And Mr. Santos says once the Supreme Court reaches that de­ci­sion I will be re­leased im­me­di­ately be­cause of my good be­hav­iour all these years. I’m a trustee, you see.”

He turned to face the Di­rec­tor. “So, not long to go now, Sir, and I’ll be leav­ing you!”

He laughed, re­mov­ing his arm from my shoul­der to once again grab hold of the trousers that had been threat­en­ing to fall down around his an­kles. He shrugged at me and winked. “No belts, pins, or ropes al­lowed in here! Not even for a trustee! And look I’ve lost weight too!” He breathed in deeply, suck­ing in his large stom­ach and tugged at the over-gen­er­ous waist­band. It was true the trousers ap­peared to be sev­eral sizes too big.

“Mind you be­have your­self in the mean­time, Pan­cho.” Santos warned, “Don’t go ru­in­ing ev­ery­thing. Think of your fam­ily.”

Fam­ily? I guess I hadn’t thought of any of these men as hav­ing fam­i­lies. I dwelled for a mo­ment on the no­tion of Pan­cho be­ing a pa­tri­ar­chal fig­ure. For some rea­son, de­spite the fact he had par­tic­i­pated in a chill­ing, pre­med­i­tated crime, I could some­how imag­ine him be­ing a de­pend­able fa­ther, per­haps even a car­ing one. I won­dered if his crime had been a one- off, a mo­men­tary act of reck­less­ness by a man des­per­ately need­ing to pro­vide for his chil­dren.

I turned my thoughts to the oth­ers I had met that day. How many of them, too, had come from a nor­mal fam­ily life? Did

Apolo­nio and Mar­i­ano have de­voted wives, girl­friends, or daugh­ters wait­ing for them out­side Bilibid? Did Jaime have an ador­ing mother pray­ing ev­ery day for his re­lease? It was strange that when I now thought about them this way, as fam­ily men, I could no longer think of them as the ruth­less, cold­blooded bur­glars, rapists, or slayers I had read about in the news­pa­pers. To see them and to talk to them was to be con­vinced they were in­ca­pable of harm­ing any­one. But then per­haps they were con­sid­ered so dan­ger­ous they were kept se­dated in­side these walls. Or maybe, after all these years on Death Row, their spir­its had been bro­ken. Per­haps they were vastly dif­fer­ent now from the men they had once been. I won­dered aloud to Santos if I was just be­ing naïve, se­duced by their charm, their smiles, their sen­si­tiv­ity, or their quiet de­meanour, much as their many vic­tims must have been.

Santos chuck­led. “I’m taken in by them ev­ery day, Caro­line. Killers can be very ma­nip­u­la­tive, very per­sua­sive, very charm­ing, you know.” Some­what in­dul­gently he added, “But I must agree with you—I wouldn’t want to be­lieve they would do it again if they went free.”

“Not true.” Pan­cho replied with­out hes­i­ta­tion. “The ones who are dan­ger­ous are those, still out­side, in society, the ones who haven’t yet com­mit­ted a mur­der. Isn’t that right, Sir?”

Santos smiled in­dul­gently. “If you say so, Pan­cho.”

In one re­spect Death Row ap­peared pleas­ant. At least it was clean and each man was al­lowed his own bed­ding. In con­trast to the place we were now en­ter­ing—the ad­mit­tance hall. The quar­ters hous­ing the new re­mand pris­on­ers where each man was forced to sleep, side by side, on the con­crete floor of a metal cage wait­ing to be as­signed their re­spec­tive cells. In the last four weeks, Santos ex­plained, the prison had re­ceived a fur­ther 1,200 new pris­on­ers and there was lit­tle he could do to al­le­vi­ate their dis­tress­ful liv­ing con­di­tions.

“It’s mad­ness,” Pan­cho sighed, “There’s just no place to put them all.”

I watched the new pris­on­ers for a few moments, hud­dled to­gether, un­clas­si­fied, undig­ni­fied and anonymous. Here they were ex­pected to lan­guish in herds un­til their pa­pers had been pro­cessed and there was bed space avail­able.

What the prison had al­ways suf­fered from, Santos con­tin­ued, was a se­vere lack of funds. Not only money was in short sup­ply but food, cloth­ing, kitchen­ware, bed­ding, med­i­cal, and san­i­tary sup­plies too were all des­per­ately needed. To save on the food bud­get the in­mates were en­cour­aged to grow their own veg­eta­bles. He led me to­ward the gar­dens.

I was sur­prised. With­out ex­cep­tion they ap­peared neat and well tended. And the at­mos­phere, for the most part, was not as bleak, op­pres­sive, or in­tim­i­dat­ing as I would have imag­ined. The pris­on­ers were po­lite, mostly soft spo­ken and re­spect­ful to their Di­rec­tor. As the three of us walked past them they im­me­di­ately stood up to greet us. Be­ing a fig­ure of au­thor­ity they may not have loved Santos but it ap­peared they cer­tainly re­spected him.

Across from the veg­etable gar­dens, in the cen­ter of the main block, Pan­cho pointed out the dis­torted, hud­dled sil­hou­ettes of men cling­ing to the iron bars of their win­dows.

“That’s the psy­chi­atric ward,” he ex­plained, “some of them used to be on Death Row.”

I re­mem­bered what Apolo­nio had told me. It was sad to imag­ine that some of these pa­thetic fig­ures were pos­si­bly for­mer cell­mates of his on Death Row.

Their eyes stared va­cantly out at us across the gar­den, prob­a­bly un­aware of their sur­round­ings. Next door to the psy­chi­atric ward, Pan­cho led me to the TB and lep­rosy wing. Santos con­fessed he would pre­fer me not to en­ter ei­ther. Pan­cho later whis­pered to me, “It’s bed­lam in those places! It would scare you. It’s not a pretty sight!”

I didn’t ad­mit it then but I was quite grate­ful both wings were deemed off-lim­its.

Not all the cur­rent in­mates at Bilibid were guilty of com­mit­ting a crime. A great many of them, Pan­cho in­formed me, were fall guys, paid or hired by more af­flu­ent and pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als to ad­mit to a crime they did not com­mit. Oth­ers were im­pris­oned solely be­cause they pos­sessed nei­ther the money nor the con­tacts to get de­cent le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. And still oth­ers were framed. Some of these men were con­demned to spend most of their lives or, in many cases, end­ing their lives, in­side a metal cage know­ing that the men they were pro­tect­ing, the men who ac­tu­ally com­mit­ted “their” par­tic­u­lar crime were liv­ing nor­mal, pos­si­bly very priv­i­leged, lives out­side.

“Can you be­gin to imag­ine how that must feel, Caro­line?” Pan­cho asked.

It was a painful thought but it was easy for me to see that in the kind of society they were liv­ing—a society of dras­tic con­trasts, be­tween the haves and the have-nots—there was al­most noth­ing peo­ple like Pan­cho could do to put an end to such in­jus­tices. Money, con­tacts, and a good lawyer were all nec­es­sary re­quire­ments for avoid­ing prison sen­tences. I re­al­ized sadly that if all of the in­mates I had met that day had any one of those lux­u­ries at their dis­posal there was no doubt they would never be in­side Bilibid Prison. And I knew from talk­ing to them at length that ev­ery man, in his own way, had learned to ac­cept this fact, no matter how un­palat­able.

But the re­al­ity was that 9,000 men were in­car­cer­ated there, some guilty but very many in­no­cent, who all de­served, at least, the right of a clean mat to sleep on and a bar of soap to wash with. For ev­ery man who es­caped the death sen­tence, there would al­ways be an­other, more un­for­tu­nate, in­di­vid­ual who would be ex­e­cuted in the “death seat.” It made me both sad and an­gry to think what if these men were, as Pan­cho was in­sin­u­at­ing, en­tirely in­no­cent?

“Please try to help me and my friends. You know we’re tired of wait­ing.” Pan­cho whis­pered as he kissed me good­bye. Santos had al­ready said his good­byes and had re­turned to his of­fice for more press­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive du­ties.

En­gulfed by Pan­cho’s huge bear hug I was pow­er­less to pre­vent his fin­gers from stray­ing down to the very base of my spine. When he even­tu­ally re­leased me he laughed his big, gen­er­ous laugh. “Send me your photo, Caro­line, please. A per­sonal one, with a per­sonal mes­sage. And wait for me. I’ll be out soon. OK?”

“Sure,” I said. “And thanks for tak­ing me round, Pan­cho. Good luck!” As I left, I turned my head. He was stand­ing there watch­ing me leave, his fin­gers grip­ping the waist­band of his baggy trousers, his large head thrown back and a big grin on his face.




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