As posted on my GMA column:
Last Wednesday, I tagged along with Erwin Romulo to New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa. This was part of Rock Ed’s weekly visitation to the maximum security prison.
RockEd is a movement that aims to encourage reading and education through music. They have held several projects and produced several events. They also have a weekly radio show every Sunday at 8pm on NU 107, hosted by Gang Badoy, who founded Rock Ed, and Lourd de Veryra of the RadioActiveSago Project, with music by Terno Recordings.
We met up with Gang and two other volunteers, Leslie and Mike along the SLEX and together, we went to Bilibid.
You hear all sorts of things about folks in prison. It doesn’t help that movies paint prison as being a dark, soulless place where people are kept behind bars and given scarps of food to eat.
The security inside Bilibid is unbelievably tight (and rightly so). No cellphones or cameras allowed. We had to empty out the contents of our bags, surrender an ID and get frisked. The guys had to get stamped as proof that they don’t belong inside. After all that, we were finally in.
The inside of Bilibid is like a little barangay. There is a hospital, a basketball court, a canteen, numerous sari-sari stores. People walk around, some in their orange uniforms, others in casual attire. It looked like you were in a men-only commune and not one of the biggest prisons in the country. People called out to Gang as she passed, all of which she greeted with a cheerful ‘hello’ back. We could see groups of prisoners walking around — probably gang leaders and their ‘bodyguards.’ We passed some joggers who waved happily at us. The tiny road was smooth and well-paved, a far cry from some of the streets you see in Metro Manila.
Gang teaches a creative writing class in Bilibid every Wednesday. She sometimes brings in guests to talk about what they do. It’s one way of getting the inmates to meet new people, something they cannot do on their own because of their current situation. Examples of people she’s brought include writers, filmmakers and musicians. RockEd even organized a concert of the inmates recently of three of today’s most popular bands — The Itchyworms, Pedicab and Hale.
We were led deep inside the prison, into a small, well-lit activity room that also housed the prison library. This is where Gang’s students regularly gathered for class. I was asked to introduce myself. I told them that I was a horror writer, and that immediately got their attention. It seemed that everyone had a question to ask or a scary story to tell.
“Did you feel anything on your way here?” someone ask.
“Thank goodness I didn’t!” I replied.
I was told about haunted cells, haunted bathrooms, given tips on how to go about researching in the morgue. A guy told us about how he had encountered a talking goat when he was a child while another regaled us with a story of how he picked a fight with a ghost. They were all very smart. We discussed stuff like clairvoyance, near death experiences and Christian belief about the nature of spirits. I learned from them that fiction is kathang-isip in Tagalog.
They also asked about how I researched my stories, and whether I did it alone.
“Not if I can help it!” I answered.
Afterwards, Gang gave them a lesson on ownership and imagination. “Your story or poem belongs to you,” she said, “and only you have the right to dictate what happens in it. It can be based on events or it could be something purely from your imagination. You can exaggerate if you want, because it is yours. What is important is that you are happy with what you have written.”
Gang is a very good teacher. I found myself relearning things I had forgotten and discovering others that I didn’t realize about the writing process. Her class listened attentively, drinking in her every word. I realized that this was probably the most interested, well-behaved class I had ever seen. She then gave them an assignment. They were to each write a horror story that they were to let someone else read, one person per story. The only criteria for this exercise was that they scare their groupmate. They would then report on the stories they read.
Gang’s students wanted to see some of my work, so I’m supposed to give Gang photocopies of one of my stories.
Afterwards, we milled around for a bit. One of the prisoners showed me and Erwin the scars from where he was shot in the early 90’s. He described the sensation of being shot, and the pain of the wound healing. I asked to touch it and he let me. Now I know what a healed gunshot wound feels like. He also told me that he’s been starving for horror and suspense books, since most of what circulates within the prison walls are Tagalog romance novels. Imagine that!
We were joined by fashion designer Puey Quinones, who also holds once a week classes in Bilibid, but for painting and fashion design. Everyone sat down to a dinner of white rice, steamed crab, and probably the best tinolang manok I have ever tasted. We sat around some more then it was time to go home. what looked like the whole class escorted us to the prison gates, where we shook hands and said goodbye.
Later, I asked Gang when the class would be reporting on their groupmates’ stories. She said they could wait for me if I wanted. I really want to hear what horror stories her students come up with. I’ll let you know if anything stands out.
Find out more about Rock Ed on http://www.rockedphilippines.org/
Happy Halloween, everyone!