DON CECILIO HALILI PENSON: Prison Volunteer
Seldom we encounter instances where a multi-millionaire would breach the comfort of his neighborhood and would get through the prison gates to see up close the most dangerous sector of society if only to spend an occasion and share his fortune without the benefit of seeking heavenly recompense. But there are such personalities or persona who hide from the spot light and in their humble way offer help and be of service to humanity—wherever this would take them.
In the case of one Cecilio H. Penson, well, to the prison community, he is The Cecilio H. Penson, or for those very close to him, especially the correctional officers and prisoners, he is Dr. Penson, a feisty 80 year old who would jog from his residence at posh Ayala Village to a rundown camp, ramshackle if you may a community, the medium security camp of the national penitentiary. At times, and this was on interval basis, he would drive his Mercedes Benz and would jump out to greet his inmate students. Dr. Penson started the shift from punitive and conservative treatment of prisoners to a liberal more slanted to education without even being a formal segment of the prison system. He would regularly come to the prison camp, a notebook and a worn out book in hand and would begin to invite prisoners to a small corner at the back of the office to conduct his weekly lesson on life. And how the inmates would love every minute of his lecture. He was no ordinary speaker. He spoke from the heart.
In a span of two years, he was able to influence that part of the penitentiary which for decades had seen and experienced the slow evolution of corrections as a science in rehabilitation. He triggered its application and made inroads into what today has been known as the college degree program for prisoners.
Dr. Penson’s entry into the prison consciousness
Dr. Cecilio H. Penson entrance in the prison community was unexpected; he was actually uninvited and would in a flash appear before a startled group of prison officers at the maximum wing of the national penitentiary. He was looking for a prison officer to hear his offer. He was coddling a ten-inch folder about his credentials and the program he intends to spread to the prison community. He was to promote the National Greening Movement. At that time, there was no issue yet on climate change, much more so, any awareness plan for environmental protection. It was in the early 80s and Martial Law had as yet to reinvent itself.
The National Greening Movement of Dr. Penson was immediately a suspect. It was “national” and therefore sounding a bit progressive. It was a “movement” and therefore something to be wary about. The “greening” thing could have been a term inserted to make it more subdued but nonetheless, no prison officer would pick it up, much more so, accompany to the prison community. There were lots of headaches already in prison, and adding another concern was like asking for a hole in the head.
Dr. Penson was virtually tossed from one officer to another, from one duty guard to another. Exasperated, he bided the officer corps goodbye. Much as he wanted to leave behind his folder for the officers to review and appreciate, no one would dare accept anything, even reciprocate the gesture. DR. Penson for them was a mysterious personality who came out of the blue.
As he was slowly moving out from the prison control gate, where he was hindered in passing through towards the maximum prison wing, I, a relatively new prison officer, met him, his head still swaggering from frustration. I volunteered to greet the kindly looking gentleman and in my estimation, he found a willing listener for his cause. I seldom visit the maximum wing except when there were cases to be reviewed. Before a death convict was to be scheduled for execution, several weeks before the date, the agency would require my office to conduct a psychological profile on the person. I was the chief psychologist of the national penitentiary at that time.
Dr. Penson inquired if I could spare a few seconds for some introduction. I obliged and in the process, invited him to my office at the Reception and Diagnostic Center, a kilometer away from the maximum security prison where we continued our discussions. I assigned another officer to take charge of my mission so that Dr. Penson and I could agree on some programs he intends to initiate . Dr. Penson and I eventually found common interest in formulating a grand rehabilitation program for prisoners.
He left his thick folder for me to review and one Saturday, he came back not in his formal attire, as when I saw him the first time, but in a very informal jogging suit, complete with a towelette hugging his neck like Fernando Poe Jr., in his prime. Dr. Penson, probably wanted to impress me that he was not that too formal and that he wanted to get down to the brass tack as in working with prisoners. He would find time to be in my office every Saturday and in the course of our interaction, we would organize a school for the newly received prisoners. (My office, the Reception and Diagnostic Center, has its own building for the newly admitted prisoners). The gentleman was very serious. He would even boast that he was in his 80s already but he would never rest, since work for him, any work for that matter, was something he craved for. He may be more than 80 years old but he moved spritely like a man in his early 50s. He did not look like his age. His stood erect, dynamic in his thoughts, energetic on the way he expressed a concern, so full of life, very lively and keen.
I was forced to attend to him on week-ends even if those were days without office for civilians like me. I was also interested on his crusade and seldom would I encounter any person worth his salt, spending time in prison even if it never amounts to any recognition. He asked if he could organize a small school, a pilot one, just for him to have a regular group of students, all inmates at that, to share the lessons he learned in life. Dr. Penson, in my mind, probably found life of retirement boring, hence his drive. I even suspected that he was a widower already and that his kids were all abroad or somewhere far from him. All that I would hear from him whenever I would ask his family was his endearing passion for his wife, his Dona Nena, who was his inspiration to reach out to disadvantaged communities like prison. The man was not only ambiguous but his enthusiasm for me was a cause for mystery. I only learned lately that he was good family man, a doting father, a loving husband and all his children were handling their family business.
College Degree Program for Prisoners
As soon as we have established an educational program he would fondly refer to, and which I immediately introduced, as the Prison School for Applied Science, I would attend his regular lectureships among a select group of prisoners. His theme was on the life of Don Emilio. How Don Emilio became successful despite the intrigues and disappointments in life. He was a good speaker, very animated and full of zest. Seldom, if at all, his listeners would get bored. His lectures would stretch for three hours and it was for all of us listeners, worth the week’s wait. There was only one speck in his regular lectureships: he would never divulge who that Don Emilio is.
One day, Dr. Penson proposed the establishment of a college degree program for prisoners. Here he invited his son, Dwight, a budding political stalwart of Las Pinas at that time, to coordinate with his friends in the academic sector to organize a formal school for prisoners. He invited such prominent personalities to appreciate the program he introduced. He accompanied then law practitioner (who later would become one of the Justices of the Supreme Court) Justice Adolf Ascuna. There were also a number of expert lawyers who would visit my facility and who would later become cabinet secretaries . His efforts paid off with the formal establishment of the college degree program courtesy of the Perpetual Help University, with Dr. Tamayo no less, Dwight’s friend, leading the university’s first attempt in organizing a formal class outside of its school’s premises. The college program would still continue up to present with hundreds of graduates already. (Majority of those who graduated from the college program were already released and were gainfully employed already.)
When the college degree program became operational in 1982, Dr. Penson took his leave. We were informed that he concentrated on his National Greening Movement. In 1986, as soon as the EDSA Revolution subsided with the assumption to the presidency of Madam Cory Aquino, he visited my camp. He announced that the dawn of a new administration would have a progressive effect on the prison system. He informed me that his daughter, Margie, who was married to a prominent sports writer, Philip Ella Juico, was one of Cory’s staff. I ribbed him off, pleading as a matter of fact, to apply for the directorship of prisons so that we could improve the system. We were very animated that day.
A Sad Day in Prison
Things never went the way we projected it. A certain police officer, one with a checkered background was appointed at the helm of the prison service. The appointee proved very ineffective. Worst, the fellow never knew prison administration and went on discarding prison rules on the treatment of offenders. He out rightly reclassified maximum security prisoners, those considered incorrigible, to minimum security status. In no time, these incorrigibles began their predatory activities, robbing and molesting people in the free community. A good number would even escape. The corps of officers in prison, including myself, found his presence repulsive, as we began to mount protests even if in the process, we were even mistaken as loyalists of the previous regime. That was one of the blackest episodes of prison administration, until changes caught up. The succeeding prison leadership, Gen. Meliton Goyena, was better and very professional.
Years passed when I have not heard anything about Dr. Penson. After the Cory administration came the Ramos years, then Estrada. During the GMA early years, a new prison leadership would be appointed and I would see myself reassigned to Davao Prison and Penal Farm. I was busy repairing the Davao facility when I would hear a familiar voice. It was Dr. Penson and he wanted me to visit him in his office across Philippine General Hospital, along Taft Avenue. He was busy with some kind of a seminar for those leaving the country. The teacher, the lecturer in Dr. Penson was everywhere in his office cum seminar room.
Dr. Penson’s Sojourn in Davao Penal Colony
I invited Dr. Penson to visit me in Davao. He did. In a couple of month’s time, I would usher him from Davao airport to my place in Davao Penal Colony. He could have left earlier had it not for an unfortunate incident that happened. His beloved wife, Dona Nena would slip and would break her pelvic bone. He must stay beside his wife in the hospital. It was after Dona Nena would leave the hospital to recover that he found time to check Davao.
Over in Davao Penal Colony, I introduced him to my staff, toured him around the facility and offered him a space where we could build an edifice if only to continue and establish a branch of the prison program we have earlier organized. I saw once again the glow in his eyes. The same dynamic Dr. Penson of years back had come back to life again. He promised to be back to help me build our dream. (In one moment, he was sharing to me his personal life. According to him, he was a scion of the Halili family in Bulacan. I thought of the Halili transit I used to flag down while commuting during my teens. And he even mentioned about a softdrink business his family used to own. Those are some of the personal glimpse he wanted to reveal but for me it was some kind of a secret, a fleeting emotional data he wanted me to be familiar, as familiar as a member of his closely knit family. )
I assembled a motley group of prison volunteers, mostly teachers, conducted a screening body to check and select the first group of prisoners who would undergo Dr. Penson’s prison school for applied science. It took me quite some time to organize the program until we chipped in to build a humble shade to shelter the school, one across the penal camp. The program however suffered a setback when I was recalled from Davao and to report back to New Bilibid Prison. I initiated a series of education related program including the alternative learning system (ALS), the same program Manny Pacquaio would benefit from, preparing him for a college degree before he was elected as a parliamentarian but these efforts would be suspended since it was a program discretion.
Dr. Penson’s Final Moment
For me, my recall from Davao to Manila was providential since I would be closer to Dr. Penson. A few days, after I had adjusted back in Manila, I was informed that Dr. Penson passed away. His remains laid in a Chapel in Ortigas. I went to see for the last time, the man I considered a close associate, a fellow dreamer and a pillar of prison education, only to see his picture without his remains. I could have given him the usual hug he would give me every time we meet. I could have, for the last time, genuflected to this great man, but he was cremated. The chapel was full of flowers, full of pictures, full of friends. The vessel containing his ash had not arrived yet but all through that day, I prayed for his guidance, prayed for his inspiration, prayed for his direction. He never left the world. The prison community is still alive with his classic counseling. His monument lies in our hearts.
Years later, I would be back in Davao penal colony. This time, I am in the process of building a school edifice, the one I left before, and that building we would christen as Don Cecilio H. Penson School—a fitting memorial for a man who spent his remaining years in the service of the prison community.