Hope Behind Bars: There’s life and hope for inmates after prison
After seven years in and out of the Bataan District Jail (BDJ), Bernadeth Gabor could feel confident to disprove President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent assertion that those who had spent time behind bars are hopeless and could no longer be rehabilitated to become productive members of society.
Make no mistake, Gabor is no troublemaker. She is the dean of the College of Technology of the Bataan Peninsula State University (BPSU) who initiated the Hope Behind Bars program to help hundreds of BDJ “residents” get a second shot at life after prison.
The in-prison skills development program offers various technical-vocational courses to inmates.
Mr. Duterte and others who see no hope for former prisoners might learn that some of Gabor’s students who are now free had landed decent jobs here and abroad while others were helping her maintain and expand the program.
Gabor, 41, started Hope Behind Bars in 2010 after a friend working at the BDJ asked for her help to teach some skills to the inmates.
She was hesitant at first to jump at the idea because she feared for her life due to the bad image of prisoners she then had.
Nonetheless, with the civic-mindedness that had been instilled in her since childhood, she accepted the challenge, she told the Inquirer.
Despite lacking resources in the first two years of the program, she soldiered on, inspired by the BDJ residents’ “eagerness to learn.”
“They see you as their chance to become better individuals. They are very happy because they learn a lot. I’ve grown fond of them because I saw hope in their eyes,” Gabor said.
It was difficult for her to recruit other teachers as they, too, were afraid of the inmates as she was. But after some prodding and experiencing how it felt to teach inside a jail, volunteers started signing up.
What was initially a one-woman show became a full-fledged program backed by no less than 50 teachers and BPSU staff.
The university later provided financial support. This enabled Gabor, who first taught how to bake bread like the popular pan de sal, to offer other courses such as welding, automotive repair, housekeeping and even dressmaking.
Most of her students have been certified as professionals by the Technical Education Skills and Development Authority (Tesda).
BDJ residents who took part in the program were mostly those who were about to be released and who saw their new skills as a boost to their social reintegration.
Gabor said a study showed that those who took part earned enough to send money to their families to buy appliances and fix their homes. Some have been employed in cruise ships and even as security officers in provincial malls, she said.
“It gives you a good feeling that somehow you are able to restore their self-confidence, that you are able to impart to them new skills, knowledge and information,” she said.
Gabor’s work has been recognized by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, which has tapped her to replicate Hope Behind Bars in Olongapo City in Zambales province.
Bato Balani Foundation Inc. and Diwa Learning Systems Inc. have also honored her with “The Many Faces of the Teacher” award.
Now on its 14th year, the award aims to inspire and encourage teachers around the country to do more, especially outside their classrooms where they can make a make “a bigger difference.”
The achievements of Gabor’s students dispute Mr. Duterte’s recent statement that prisoners “do not want [to go] out of prison because they have lost the existence, the essence or existence of a productive person.”
“If they get used to six, seven, 10 years, 15, 20 years they are in prison, no matter what form of livelihood you teach them in Tesda, once they are out, they will look for some trouble. And then they will return to Muntinlupa and they will be happy,” Mr. Duterte said in a Tesda anniversary speech.
‘There is always hope’
Gabor, however, believes “there is always hope” for those who may have lost their way.
“Once they are out, there are jobs and they have families waiting for them. The people must learn to accept them. That’s why I strive to open the minds of others that they (prisoners) can change,” she said.
According to Gabor, one of the main reasons some released prisoners go back to jail is people look down on them and are afraid of them.
“This should not be the case. We should support them in their path to changing their lives,” she said.
Gabor said her passion to teach at the BDJ was further strengthened when two years into the program, her younger brother was locked up at the facility on “false charges” of selling and possessing illegal drugs.
After spending at least two years in jail, her brother was acquitted. Now he is a contractor abroad.
Gabor said what happened to her brother made her better understand the plight of the BDJ inmates and realize that people in prison need help and should be given an opportunity to turn a new leaf.
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