(Speech of an ex-detainee who earned a doctorate in criminal justice from Michigan State University)
Last May 4, 2012, I marched in the graduation ceremonies of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. Pending the successful defence of my dissertation, I will receive a doctoral degree in criminal justice. From a maligned ex-detainee in one of the most crowded jails in the Philippines, I will be called “Dr. Narag,” with specialization in prison administration. I wish to share my story as testimony to the triumph of the human spirit. It is a testimony of God’s love.
I was once accused of a crime I did not commit. I was accused of murder for the death of an equally promising young man few months prior to my bachelors’ graduation in the University of the Philippines. From May 24, 1995 until February 28, 2002, I was arrested by the police, prosecuted in the courts and put behind bars in Quezon City Jail. Then only 20 years old, I was naive to the harsh realities of this world. Released at age 27 and losing the seven best years of my youthful life, I was a changed man.
Like any emotionally devastated human being, I was initially bitter about my incarceration. I could not fathom why a person as idealistic and as innocent as I was should undergo such travails. I cannot comprehend why I had to live in a cell that accommodated 30 inmates instead of the 5 that was humanely prescribed. I cannot understand why I was forced to live with a food subsistence of dried fish (tuyo) that barely sustained my flesh. I cannot grasp why I had to go out of jail with handcuffs and the media too willing to proclaim: “I was the person to be hanged.”
But God works in mysterious ways. He sent people who could serve as floater when I was about to sink in the sea of despair. He sent sister Auxi, a religious nun, who made me her assistant in her prison ministry. He sent Bobby and other brothers in the Christ Youth Action, who introduced me to the Bible. He sent the UP Pahinungod which provided me with the opportunity to be “fulltime” volunteer in the jail. He kept my parents and sisters who steadfastly supported me without questioning my involvement in the crime. He kept my girlfriend whose advice: “be a good boy” continued to ring when the corrupting influences of the jail tempted me. And He gave Dan, my fellow accused and who served time with me, whose character was a pillar of strength when we were emotionally drained.
Responding to the hook God gave me, I volunteered my services to the Jail Bureau. I taught in the literacy program where we introduced the basics of writing and reading to our fellow inmates. I worked as a paralegal coordinator where we monitored the cases of inmates who had long been overdue for release. I organized a bible study group called Kristo Okay sa Amin (KOSA) to generate brotherly love among the warring gangs. Eventually, on my fourth year of imprisonment, I became the Mayor the Mayores, the top position in the inmate political hierarchy, where I helped the warden in managing the affairs of the prison: of how to keep the jail surroundings clean, of how to prevent conflicts among the inmate gangs, of how to generate funds to keep the reformation programs going. Indeed, I saw firsthand the intricacies of managing a crowded, underfunded, undermanned prison institution.
Therefore, instead of being bitter about my prison experience, as Father Tony Ranada, the QC Jail chaplain would say, ‘I was embettered by it!” I learned that there was a reason why God sent me there: to tame my wild and insatiable soul. Prior to my incarceration, I was headed to the worldly and Machiavellian life of the legal profession where I envisioned myself to be a shrewd lawyer. “Nah!” God said, “I had better plans!”
I realized I was in jail to discover His undying love for me. I realized His immense plan to prosper me. Having found the reason: I claimed my freedom and clung on to His promise: I may be the maligned inmate, but I was spiritually free. I shall use my academic and intellectual skills for His greater glory.
In the process, I was invigorated to document furiously what ailed the jail administration and to understand why and how my fellow inmates ended up in jail. I also endeavored to understand why gangs engaged in violence and drug distribution and how prison officers maintained their professional integrity despite the deficiency in salaries and personnel. I wrote letters to the media and to concerned politicians and administrators to provide a realistic analysis of why jail escapes happen, of why inmates engage in riots, and anything that will portray a true understanding of jail life. Indeed, right in the confines of Quezon City Jail, I was introduced to the academic field of Criminal Justice.
Eventually, after 6 years, 9 months and 4 days, I was proclaimed a free man. Of course, I was wrongly accused! Immediately, I wrote a book entitled “Freedom and Death Inside the City Jail” about my jail experience which was supported by the United Nations Development Program and published by the Philippine Supreme Court. In his message, then Chief Justice Hilario Davide described my book as an “eye opener.” He then used it as one of the bases for the wide-ranging Action Program for Judicial Reforms. In one unforgettable moment, I delivered a speech in front of the 15 justices of the Supreme Court sharing them my story of incarceration and redemption. Almost in tears, one of the female justices approached me and whispered, “our courts could only express our apology.”
Apologies accepted! But more than apology, I wanted our leaders to act more in behalf of the inmates and other downtrodden people. I wanted them to develop a passion for the people they are serving. Using my extensive experience on how the inefficacy of the prison records lengthen the stay of inmates in jail, and inspiring a group of computer programmers, we came up with a Simplified Inmates Records System (SIRS) that computerized the inmates’ carpeta. We also developed a Detainees Notebook, where inmates can self-monitor their own cases. These efforts to de-clog the jail were eventually noticed by the Quezon City government; which awarded me the Outstanding Citizen Award in 2005. Three years after [being] treated a lowly inmate in Quezon City Jail, I was honored as Quezon City ’s model citizen. God be the glory.
But when it rains, it pours. My representation about the penal situation brought me everywhere. Eventually, I was chosen as one of the 10 Fulbright Scholars in August 2005. I was sent to Michigan State University for a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice. For my masters’ thesis, I studied the correlates of victimization among Filipino respondents. Impressed by my performance, the Department offered me another scholarship, this time for the Doctor in Philosophy.
The road to the PhD degree was a long and rigorous one. I had to burn the candles to read theories about crime; I had to stay in the library for long periods to master the methods of collecting data; and I had to refresh my old mathematical skills in order to understand statistical analyses. There were times that I almost gave up, asking God if I had made the right decision to pursue a PhD. I had two kids by then and they were growing right in my eyes.
But once again, I clung to God’s promise. I remembered: He sent me to prison, and He plucked me out. Then, there must be a reason why He sent me to a foreign shore just to be the ‘Filipino expert’ in Criminal Justice. Indeed, He introduced me to a church family that nourished and deepened my understanding of His Word. In my spiritual growth, I realized that any efforts to improve a justice or social system must be based on the foundation of truth and love. And I used this biblical concept to guide my future efforts to improve my country’s justice system. Indeed, after seven years, the same length of time I spent in jail, I am done with my masters and PhD degrees.
I marched tall and proud. I marched to say thank you for all those who kept and continue to keep the faith. I will reiterate: Hang on and never give up. I marched to declare that everybody commits a mistake and it is important to learn and grow from it. I marched to be a testimony to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of seemingly unending odds. But most importantly, I marched as a proclamation of God’s love.