Doing hard time

There is much criticism of the lengthy delays in bringing people to court in the Philippines.

I am in my first term as a lay missionary in the Philippines and working in Olongapo District Jail, three hours north of Manila.

I have completed 14 months there where I minister to men and women prisoners. It saddens my heart to see how prisoners are treated here.

Looking back it seems like I have been working in the jail for only two or three days. This is a challenging and fulfilling ministry; I am still amazed how prisoners survive in the Olongapo District Jail.

This is the place they call 'home,' despite what they have done due to poverty and frustration. A jail is so overcrowded and congested; one of the reasons for this is the long time they have to wait for their court hearing. The Olongapo District Jail consists of 14 cells and accommodates 700 males and more.

These inmates share the difficulties they face in prison in conversations with me. I agree that personal hygiene is not always a priority for the authorities and prisoners are not treated fairly. As a result their situation can be depressing making their lives more miserable and lonely.

Some share the pain of not seeing a future when they get out of prison. One reason is the stigma that society puts on them and the strong feeling of rejection they experience. That is why some think that going back to prison is a way to run away from those realities.

Also, some say that they don't feel the stigma and rejection by society or family members for the wrong they have committed; besides they get free food! About 70% of the inmates are connected with drug trafficking and about 30% are connected to other criminal cases. Many find themselves in this situation because of unemployment.

What saddens me most is the injustice of the way many of their cases are handled, totally ignoring their rights as human beings. Sometimes I think that when one ends up in prison the experience will strip you, taking away your dignity as a human being. I believe no matter what happens, nothing can ever take away a person's dignity and right to live. But sadly, I have come to discover that these inmates in the Olongapo Jail don't feel and think the way I do.

This experience of injustice in the Olongapo District jail has challenged me, but most of all, inspired me to dedicate my time to listening to these inmates. While I have become their friend, I also try to motivate them to value their dignity as human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. Secondly, I try to help them feel a glimpse of hope in life inspired by the words of the Gospel, "I came that you may have life and have it to the full." (Jn 10:10).

Lusio Navelinikoro is a Fijian lay missionary in Olongapo City, Philippines.