Life after drugs

Inquirer Libre - Davao - - PANGUNAHING PAHINA - Frinston Lim @flimINQ

DAVAO CITY – Mary Grace was a call center agent but then she ran into trouble with the law because of illegal drugs.

The 29-year old, caught in possession of drugs, has since been living as an inmate at the Davao City Jail for over two years now.

Last week, Mary Grace found a new hope when she was chosen as among those who will make up the first batch of detainees to go to college while in prison.

“I’m grateful because this can give me an opportunity to learn something that I can use to improve my life and the lives of my children once I get out,” the mother of three children aged between two and eight said.

Holding back her tears, Mary Grace recounted how her life was suddenly turned upside down when she and her live-in partner were caught by police in an anti-drug operation.

“My children do not live in one house. Two are being taken care of by the mother of my partner while my sister looks after the youngest who was born here,” she said.

She said she had not lost hope though, especially when she learned of the college education inside the jail.

Under the College Education Behind Bars, Mary Grace enrolled in agribusiness.

“In God’s will, I can finish my degree and leave here. I want my children to have a good life and not become like me. Being jailed is difficult,” she said. “I still believe that once a door closes on you, a window opens for you.”

Like Mary Grace, 69 of her fellow inmates the DCJ in Barangay Ma-a here have found fresh hope and opportunity with the opening of the first college institution inside the detention facility.

Dubbed as the College Education Behind Bars, touted to be the first college facility in any jail in the country, the project seeks to give inmate-residents of the DCJ a chance to acquire a college degree

while in detention, according to Director Serafin Barretto Jr., Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) chief.

“This is a laudable project because this can help inmates contribute to society once they get out of jail,” Barretto said. “They can use their time productively instead of getting bored while inside here,” he said.

The project was conceived by Dr. Aland Mizell, a Turkish who founded the non-government organization Social Entrepreneurship Institute (SEI), to provide an alternative to inmates, who would be reintegrated to society.

“We wanted to give them a second chance. The uniqueness of this is that they also gonna take recovery program,” Mizell, also SEI president, said, adding the project was not only the first for detainees in the Philippines but in the entire Asia as well.

Inmates can choose to enroll in agribusiness and information technology courses, with degrees to be conferred by the state-run University of Southeastern Philippines (USEP) here.

The DCJ has a total of 3,251 inmates facing such cases as murder and involvement in illegal drugs.

But jail officials said initially, only 300 inmates took the college entrance examinations. Seventy of those who took the exams passed, including 10 female inmates.

Teachers from USEP would conduct classes in the two-storey school facility inside the sprawling detention center and the students’ progress would be assessed based on the state university’s curriculum and grading system, Dr. Lourdes Generalao, the USEP president, said.

Generalao said the institution was “happy” with its participation in the project, with the school’s board of regent moving for its immediate approval.

“We want to give hope to the inmates that despite their situation, they can still have a chance (at getting a college education),” the university official said.

While tuition is free, students would pay a “minimal miscellaneous fee” to cover their books, lesson materials and overhead of the two-story building, Mizell said.

Senior Insp. Roberto Gotico, chief of the BJMP's community relations office, said they did not expect all the inmates to have money to pay for the miscellaneous fees.

But he said jail authorities could tap some service providers to help defray the miscellaneous expenses.

Supt. Grace Taculin, the Southern Mindanao jail warden, said the establishment of the college facility inside the DCJ would also help inmates combat the stress of overcrowding.

The facility was built to accommodate just about 300 but it now has 10 times more than what it was intended for, she said.

Barretto said stress due to overcrowding could adversely affect the inmates’ behavior, and make them prone to riots and other unruly behaviors.

With an education institution inside the facility, inmates can take their focus off stirring trouble and instead use their time in learning new skills they can use to lead a productive life once they are no longer in detention, Barretto said.

Mizell said the CEBB was his way of helping a community that has been his home for a decade.

“When the drug issue came, we wanted to help. So we came up with this project. We like to help the community because some of the people that I know come from here,” said Mizell, a Turkish national - who also writes about Middle Eastern politics.

Mizell said the inmates, who would make up the first batch of the CEBB students, were also selected based on their good behavior record, length of sentence of their offenses, and previous educational background, among others.

Organizers said classes would start early next month after the student-inmates had undergone a bridging program under the USEP curriculum.

To ensure the program’s sustainability, Mizell said prison and school authorities would conduct evaluation and assessment of students

“If you are released but got caught again for the same offense, your punishment would become stiffer and you college degree would go to waste,” the NGO official told Mary Grace and the other women inside the school’s air-conditioned computer laboratory at the building’s ground floor.

Mizell said he also intends to expand CEBB’s course offering in the future.

Barretto, the BJMP chief, said the government would support the replication of the project to other detention facilities in the country.

FRINSTON LIM

DOCTOR Aland Mizell, president of Social Entrepreneurship Institute, talks to student-inmates inside the Davao City Jail.

Education is freedom. The facade of the two-story College Education Behind Bars inside the Davao City Jail compound in Maa, Davao City is a haven of hope and opportunity to inmates to get a free college education.

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