Multi-layered prison walls, then and now

September 13, 2022

by Xandra Liza C. Bisenio

(Reaction to documentary films “Arrogance of Power” and “Beyond the Walls of Prison,” AsiaVisions Collection films under the custodianship of IBON and digitized with the help of the Community Archiving Workshop.)

I was an elementary student in the 80’s around when the Kapisanan Para sa Pagpapalaya at Amnestiya ng mga Detenido sa Pilipinas (KAPATID) was founded under the Marcos dictatorship. At the time, there were 900 political prisoners detained across Bicutan, Camp Crame, and other jails in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, as reported in the film “Arrogance of Power”. They were farmers, women, workers, youth crying out against hunger and rising prices and for higher wages and better working conditions – or, in short and as the film stated it, for the “little people of our society struggling for a better life”.

Fast forward to 2019 and the compulsion to reestablish a similar advocacy group known as KAPATID-Families and Friends of Political Detainees.  Although decades upon decades since Martial Law, the number of political prisoners swelled from some 400 at the start of the Duterte administration to over 700 at its end – all of whom are still detained under the second Marcos administration. The momentum of arbitrary and group arrests of change-seekers has even picked up.

Political detention today is indeed very much a continuation and symptom of social and economic deterioration accelerated by Marcos’ elitist neoliberal governance in  the ’70s and ’80s. The struggle of various people’s organizations and advocates then versus joblessness, poverty, inequality and lack of public and social services continues today in battles on the streets and legislative halls and in the cities and the countryside.

Farmers were jailed for asserting land to the tiller then – now, the government charges Hacienda Tinang and Negros farmers and farmworkers claiming parcels that they made productive with various crimes to incarcerate them. Workers whose strikes were violently dispersed then are the Bob Rosaleses, Maoj Magas, and Oliver Rosaleses thrown into jail today on trumped-up charges, if not outrightly killed like the Dandy Miguels or Manny Asuncions. Today’s unionists win their collective bargaining agreements only on paper because management does not give in.

Women telling their stories of trauma, hardships and violence and organizing among their ranks and other sectors then are now our Amanda Echanises, Weng Rosaleses and Gean Perezes kept in the confines of box-like prison cells where every little piece of comfort like additional inches of sleeping space, or a biscuit, has a price tag.

Torture and isolation are then and now stories in the prison cells, but today there are peculiar additional details as if the bloodiness and inhumanity of it all before have not been enough. Recently there was the death of the baby of a prisoner such as in the case of Reina Nacino and Baby River. There are sick and elderly political prisoners such as Ka Joseph Canlas who died while unjustly imprisoned. KAPATID and other groups have been pushing for the Writ of Kalayaan so vulnerable prisoners, including nursing mothers and pregnant women, would not have to be subjected to the COVID virus. Yet government refused to include them among thousands ordered for release.

The films “Arrogance of Power” and “Beyond the Walls of Prison” speak of 90,000 or so illegally arrested during Martial Law. Today this has grown to hundreds of thousands – victimizing activists and non-activists, arrested without due process or due to mistaken identity, falsely charged to serve the vested interests of powers that be that are becoming more and more desperate to preserve the status quo.

The law is being weaponized with the United States-crafted Anti-Terror Act against those outspoken against the system and for change. More and more civilians are being tagged as terrorists. Even health workers, doctors and teachers in remote barrios, the religious, professionals including lawyers, teachers, artists, and development, environment, and peace activists, are labelled as reds and detained. The list of fabricated cases against them are made longer with more non-bailable, trumped-up charges. As before, the US today continues to train the Philippine military, bureaucracy, legal system and even civilians to strengthen the implementation of anti-terrorism measures, as per their posted State reports. This is done with increasingly sophisticated technology and digital weaponry.

The System has become more rabid, but more able to use the facilities of government and media to cloak its inhumanity. Political detention has worsened along with: extrajudicial killings of mostly farmers, indigenous peoples, workers, and other ranks in solidarity asserting their livelihoods, justice and rights; harassments; forced disappearances; bombings; using public places as military barracks; and more. The list is long and the prey are tens of thousands of innocent mostly poor families just grappling to feed their children and live another day.

The films described how “state brutality operates where the interests of multinationals  are threatened by people’s relentless struggles for their economic, social and cultural rights.” Let us also include the oligarchs and bureaucrat capitalists served by their pampered army among those threatened. Today, we see how some Martial Law-era political prisoners have again been illegally arrested and detained including peace consultants Adel Silva, my father Rey Casambre, Vicente Ladlad, and recently Adora Faye De Vera, a long-time activist. They are among those still incarcerated, again based on fantastically-woven non-bailable criminal charges. They are now old, even frail and sickly, but it seems that the State still fears their freedom so.

Why should the all-powerful, technologically capable, military mighty State still fear them?

Perhaps because they identify with an undeniable movement of people’s resistance against a crisis that has worsened through time.

KAPATID, friends and families of political prisoners, is a growing family, a sad but emboldening thing. Despite the constant fear and sometimes even anger and frustration, we choose to be part of this movement no matter how eager the system is to crush it. Because step upon step, with every bit of support we receive for our kin to sustain them amid undesirable prison conditions, with every case dismissed as fought out by and with our brilliant, hardworking, pro-people counsel, with mounting solidarity from our fellow Filipinos and internationally, we would rather try to imbibe the grit, determination and undying hope of those who came before us.

We are prisoners all – imprisoned behind the various layers of cells of an unjust society. We take inspiration from those whose physical bodies are behind bars, but whose will and spirit continue to struggle to be free to serve the people.

Finally, we also wish to share this hope with our children, as the generation before us tried to. For are our kids not also in fact cruelly forced into the same prison cell that wants us to forget about humanity. And so we are challenged to help them understand why an inevitable part of the life we share should be about breaking free. ###

#FreeAllPoliticalPrisoners #FightTyranny #NeverForget