Bilibid ‘miracle’: Graduation
Marching proudly in their flowing black toga, the 37 graduates were escorted on Thursday by tearful mothers, wives and siblings, in a scene that would have been typical of commencement exercises were it not for the unlikely setting: the country’s national penitentiary.
Home to the University of Perpetual Help Bilibid Extension School, the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) radiated a festive air as 18 student-inmates collected their bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship, while 19 others received recognition for finishing a two-year computer hardware servicing course.
“For the past four years, this university had been my home,” said student-inmate Arnulfo Monreal, who received a bronze medal for academic excellence. “Education changed my whole personality. Standing tall and proud before you is a changed man.”
Indeed, the pulpit’s narrative at the extension school’s 29th commencement exercise was one of hope and redemption, notwithstanding recent headlines about drug lords still plying their trade behind bars.
‘Do I Make You Proud’
There was no shortage of good cheer as red roses and sunflowers adorned the stage and the room rang with a rousing rendition of “Do I Make You Proud,” sung by fellow inmates.
“You should consider graduation from these halls a miracle,” said Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) Director Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, who delivered the commencement address.
Dela Rosa’s promise to probe alleged anomalies at the NBP’s Inmate Documents Processing Section (IDPS) was an unexpected gift to the new graduates, some of whom claimed that their remaining time in prison was often computed wrongly.
“This is the assurance I give you: I will make sure that you will not be dealt a further injustice by not getting the right computation (of your remaining time inside the NBP),” the new BuCor chief vowed.
Dela Rosa also told the student-inmates that when the day of their release comes, he would give them a personal recommendation letter “with all my heart,” for whatever job they were applying for.
Zeal for learning
The extension school inside Bilibid prisons, which began in 1985, is fully funded by the University of Perpetual Help System Dalta (UPHSD) and has produced 500 inmate-graduates over several decades.
Like in any other college, inmates must undergo a “stringent” entrance exam and interview to test their zeal for learning, said Dr. Alfonso Loreto, UPHSD director.
“Giving somebody a second chance is really a big thing. Everyone has the right to have another bout of freedom,” Loreto told the Inquirer.
Through the school and its 10 regular teachers, inmates realize that they are not condemned for life because of past mistakes, he added.
Loreto, however, acknowledged that “(as in) regular colleges and universities, (one) cannot guarantee good graduates…But we can guarantee, definitely, that they have been renewed and given a second chance at (redemption).”
Turning a new leaf
Martin Alafriz, one of the computer servicing graduates, recalled that he was in his sophomore year at the AMA Computer University in Quezon City when he was convicted of car theft and sent to the NBP.
Ironically, it was prison that would give him the opportunity to finish his college course.
“They treat us like regular students here and really push us to learn,” Alafriz said. “In some schools outside (prison), teachers don’t care whether or not you come to class.”
Alafriz, 35, spent 14 years inside Bilibid before being released on May 4 this year. He returned to the NBP on Thursday to attend his graduation rites.
For Basilio Valdez, 49, another computer servicing graduate, getting a diploma also means having a chance to make peace with the family he had to leave when he entered Bilibid.
“Aside from adding to my knowledge, I can use this (diploma) to finally find a job for my family,” said Valdez, who was convicted of drug-related crimes.
Angel Mark Dagot, an entrepreneur graduate who received a gold medal for academic excellence, could hardly hold his tears when he thanked his mother for her sacrifice, and apologized for the “heartache” he had caused her.
“I hope this small accomplishment will help ease the pain (caused by) my past misdeeds,” he said, addressing his mom. “I know that I will always do my best to make you proud of me.”
Dagot said that attending the school inside Bilibid had saved his life.
In 2013, inside his cramped detention cell at the Medium Security Compound, the inmate recalled how the constant bickering of other inmates and the sheer boredom of being idle were like “hell itself.”
He compared himself and fellow student-inmates to the iconic character Jean Valjean, from Les Miserables: a criminal who completely refashioned himself after being given a second chance by a forgiving priest.
“We, the fresh graduates, are slowly and awkwardly taking those first steps toward liberty. We may falter and stumble, get our hands dirty, be tempted to backslide and return to a life of crime…But I am confident we can get past those obstacles. We are the lucky ones,” Dagot said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.