Prison Anecdote


I was then a rookie bureaucrat assigned to check individual case records of prisoners, determining from the data which among the newly admitted prisoners would be interviewed and given the mandatory psychological examination. I have had a lot of exposures too with visitors and had gained a lot of insights as to their hopes and aspirations for their inmate relatives. Then, an unusual incident transpired.

On my way to work one day, I happen to be seated with a casually dressed and ruggedly composed lady. Her refined manners and smooth complexion however bespoke of decency except that her sandals were nowhere between fashionable and conservative. It was handmade and it came from splintered used rubber tires! We were in a tricycle—a motorcycle installed with a protruding contraption where it can even accommodate four adult passengers. In our case, we were the ones seated that time. The lady was inquisitive. She probably thought that I was also a prison visitor. Her bespectacled eyes were also moody and contemplative.

“Are you also visiting somebody?” she asked.

“No Ma’m”, I replied and quickly added, “I work in prison.”

Finally, I saw a glimmer of smile on her serious face. “You know, I am visiting my husband. And he has committed no crime at all.”

Those were instant responses also of inmates whenever I would interview each one of them at the Reception and Diagnostic Center. But here was one instance where a visitor, as if the person was the one accused and penalized, insisting on the innocence of another. Well, in my view, the wife really had so much belief in her husband that even if judicially penalized, she would still by her spouse’s side clinging on innocence. “Of course,” I said, almost automatically as a response so that I would not offend the kindly lady.

“My husband is Nilo Tayag.” She proclaimed almost in whisper.

I was surprised and never showed any reaction. I knew Nilo Tayag. The Nilo Tayag. The face of youthful nationalism. I still could vividly recall the picture of the fellow emblazoned on posters by radical protestors. I was in high school at FEU and later in college at Letran when I would spend time joining street demonstrations Those were reckless and dangerous times but for me, it was a better alternative than be bored in attending classes . In those days, I happen to carry Nilo Tayag’s silhouette picture for some dramatic effect. For sure, I would recognize the person the moment I see him.

We were almost at the gates of the prison camp and there was only one expression I uttered as the kindly lady motioned for the tricycle to stop. “Madam,” I said, “I am one of your husband’s admirers.” I don’t know if she heard it, but she had alighted quickly and already several paces away, moving towards the direction of the prison gate.

Three months later, I would learn that the lady was UP Professor Josefina Gutierez Tayag, the wife of Nilo Tayag. By then, Nilo Tayag had been transferred to the camp where I hold my office as a guidance psychologist.

An encounter with a historical personality

As I was headed to check on my table at the Reception and Dianostic Center, I was surprised to see a hulk of an inmate. The fellow had bulging shoulders, in blue prison uniform, poring over the notes on my table as if he was one of those prison orderlies roaming stealthily from one corner to another expecting from prison officers for some errands.

I went to the time keeper to log my name on the attendance list and tried to look askance to check whether the prisoner was one of those regular orderlies. I noticed the thick horn rimmed glasses. I also noticed from the distance that the temples of the eyeglasses were already gone and it was propped up by rubber bands stretched around his head. The face was familiar. It could not be the Nilo Tayag, the face whose picture I would bear in street demonstrations a good number of years past. The Nilo Tayag I knew from his wife’s information was in Maximum Security Camp.

As I approached my table, I got surprised when the fellow was indeed the Nilo Tayag I knew from the picture and from the accounts of my fellow demonstrators. I never realized that I was a prison officer and here was an instance when I almost deflected, even genuflected at an inmate!

“Good morning.” Said the inmate.

“Good morning….” I replied and quickly asked “Are you Nilo Tayag?”

He smiled and said, “Yes, I am.” The voice was calm. The man was composed and confident. I have checked previously on his records, files and reports from his prison jacket. From those horrifying incidents he had undergone in military detention centres before he was brought to the national penitentiary, I would expect a vegetable already. He never looked that he had gone through sadistic, brutal and cruel procedures at all. He was hale and healthy. And his demeanour was very educated too. From my perspective, he looked more like a pampered witness or a spoiled whistle blower than a rebel.

“How are you Ka Nilo? Since when were you transferred? I thought that you are still at the Maximum security camp…”

My excitement to be up close with a venerated personality could not be contained. Here was a person who spent the best years of his life pushing for reforms and now serving time in prison for several years just for loving his country! And I had this creepy feeling that I am a centurion to a Christ, a friar to a Rizal, a villain, a heel!

“My wife told me that you wanted to see me?” Ka Nilo demurred.

“Ah, well…ah…that’s right Ka Nilo….I was about to see you at Maximum prison but I took time out to check your records first. I am a bit worried because from the reports I have read, the pains and cruelty you have been through, I may not have the gall to check on you personally… you know… I may not be able to stand if I would be able to appreciate a battered and ruined person…well, you look different and a good poster boy for any revolution, if you may,hehehe…” I blurted.

“Let’s stroll outside.” Ka Nilo requested.

I obliged and left my office. Outside the sprawling lawn of the Reception and Diagnotic Center, Ka Nilo and I had a hearty conversation. I felt I was nowhere outside the protagonist’s sphere. As a matter of fact, I thought that I was already a part and parcel of Ka Nilo’s nationalist advocacy. I would even volunteer to bring books for his use. Even for a miniscule role much like the Spanish guard who gave Rizal a humane treatment. I was worried, young as I was then, to be included among the hated people who promoted injustice on Ka Nilo. He was at that time for me already one of those in the pantheon of heroes, in the league with the great Rizal and the great Bonifacio. Short of conspiring for his escape, I tried everything to be of service to the man; without of course compromising my role as, unfortunately, a correctional officer.

We began to work immediately after our conversation. Ka Nilo prodded me to put up a newsletter. We started with a fledging mimeographed publication called “The Key”. It would be a monthly effort until one day, another inmate, Bingbong Crisologo would confront me on a specific sentence I wrote. According to Bingbong, it was an uninspired statement, an unpleasant one and an evidence he could use to sue me in court. I have forgotten the controversial sentence already but the incident stuck to me. Here is one prisoner who would get annoyed at something I am doing for their welfare, coming as it was even as an inspiration from another prisoner, Ka Nilo Tayag whom I idolize for his concern to the prison community. I was at a loss that time and from that situation I decided to fold the publication for good.

To improve my skill in writing, which at that time Ka Nilo was patiently correcting, I kept my notes and made diary entries instead. Notes which will be of great value when I started drafting a book about celebrity prisoners years later.

Ka Nilo reminded me on the newsletter but I was already pissed off with the reaction of inmate Crisologo. Ka Nilo had a hearty laugh after hearing the incident and he confided to me that said prisoner had an axe to grind against him.

“Disregard Bingbong’s overture, he knew that I am behind the publication that is why he wanted to get even. Bingbong thought that he was imprisoned because my group, the Kabataang Makabayan pressured President Marcos to prosecute him.” Ka Nilo said.

“You have to brace yourself therefore Ka Nilo because Bingbong has a reputation here in the prison camp already. He has the resources to haunt you. I have heard a lot of instances where Bingbong could get anything he wants. The prison director, Gen Raval, provides him with all the privileges and not even the most battle scarred custodial officer can match his zealousness if he intends to harass anyone.” I cautioned.

“Don’t worry. I can handle the fellow. I have handled misfits in the military, rogues in the police service and the worst people outside. He is just one and imprisoned at that. I can take care of the fellow. Like me, he was only trying to fend off boredom.” Ka Nilo assured.

I began organizing some inmates to be my regular staff. At that time, I was also beginning to feel that my office mates were ganging up on me as an outsider. I had no relative among the personnel of the prison service that is why I could not get any sympathetic support from anyone. Worst, I was even branded as activist not because of my close association with Ka Nilo and those prisoners I picked as my assistants (since almost all of them came from the ranks of CPP and HMB) but because I happen to study at the University of the Philippines, then the hotbed of rebellion. And as if luck would accompany my career, my supervisor would retire one after another, and hence, I would be promoted one year at a time. A situation which is almost bizarre since promotion in government service comes after every decade of stretching routinely the daily time record. I was always at the cross hair of intrigue. And the only guide I had in sustaining my interest in government service is the person of Ka Nilo. He showed me what audacity means. A lesson which would inspire me to reach the pinnacle of my career in the prison service.

Ka Nilo, the prisoner

Like all inmates in Medium Security Camp (we also refer to it as Camp Sampaguita—because the area was used by the military during the first couple of years of Martial Rule as a detention camp and it was planted with sampaguita, until it was turned over to the Bureau of Prisons, now Bureau of Corrections, as an operating institution), Ka Nilo was the regular, ordinary inmate without any special fanfare or privilege at all. A lot of prisoners would converge and encircle him nonetheless, conferring upon him the reverence of a gang leader, but he had nothing of it. He would even roam around without any company. He would wear the prison uniform, attend ahead in every head count, courteous to all custodial personnel, partook prison food ration and never offended anyone. I even suspected that he would intentionally forget to take a bath so that he would smell like everyone too. He would even gamely act as secretariat in every prison formation program and would even participate in almost all religious activities. In the minds of all cynical prisoners, if indeed Ka Nilo was really what the courts would claim as communist and therefore an atheist, his active role in spiritual revival in prison proved everyone wrong. Or perhaps, prison gave him one!

What set him apart from the prison community was not how he looks but what he was doing during his spare time. He was completely devoted in sharpening his mind, studying and reading almost everything. He even enrolled in a masteral course where academic titans would take time out to tutor him. It was during this period that I would hear more about Ka Nilo’s wife, Professor Jojo, who would openly dismiss Ka Nilo’s flirtation with revolution which brought him to where he was. Ka Nilo would even light heartedly confide to me that his wife would repeatedly caution him for “romanticizing the masses.”

“That’s what is wonderful with my wife. She wanted to change my mindset. Failing in that respect, she nevertheless would still be at my side, whatever it takes. Her persistence to assist my formal education is sustained and without any break or hesitation.” Ka Nilo proudly emphasized.

It was this academic involvement that he would influence a lot of ambitious prisoners—one of them would naturally be affected, Bingbong Crisologo, who would enrol and engage the services of La Salle University to provide him graduate studies. Ka Nilo’s interest in education caught up with the prison community until a number of prisoners sought for the introduction of a college degree for prisoners in the national penitentiary.

Ka Nilo defined discipline in the prison community. He even refined the manners of prisoners. In time, there were even inmates who were given their release papers but would rather stay in prison to be with Ka Nilo. We even laughingly referred to these instances as cases of escape from freedom. I had a lot of headaches dealing with these released prisoners who would not seek the comfort of the free community. They were all in my prison camp and our custodial officers were complaining a lot for having more heads during headcount!
Ka Nilo went for the jugular in prison administration. He organized an inmate council, an organization which will be formally introduced into the newly amended Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners. And this group will formulate and advance the cause of prison visitation to include the provision of allowing visitors to enter the prison camp and even on a specific day, to have a family day, an overnight stay with their relative. That would signal a new beginning for the national penitentiary. That provision effectively wiped out sexual derangement of prisoners and secured if not sealed the prison community against any pang of violence. Suddenly, the prison community matured overnight.

Riots became a thing of the past. Penology ushered another concept which became corrections. And prison practices evolved from hospital model to a school campus. Unlike before where inmates were seen as sick and therefore in need of confinement, at present prison is a school where discipline, skills development and maturity become the order of the day.

Ka Nilo, even without his being aware of the matter, became the rallying cause of prison reforms and outright interest in human rights and human integrity as significant issues in prison administration. He formulated a benchmark which other penal facilities all over the country could imitate and use as template.

I met Ka Nilo in prison in 1979. In 1981, he was released. In 1982, prison was never the same again.



About Ven J. Tesoro

writer, prison officer, artist
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