Ganito kami noon

October 27, 2019

I WAS raised inside the Bureau of Prisons reservations in Muntinlupa. I studied at the Itaas Elementary School and later at the Muntinlupa National High School. I grew up with children of prison employees. I knew and interacted with prisoners up close. One of them, I found out many years later, was a convicted cop killer.

I was, in the words of locals, a  “Batang Bilibid”.

My growing up years - from  1945 to 1960  - coincided more or less  with the term of my father, Dr. Alfredo M. Bunye, Sr., who served as a pre-war penal superintendent in charge of the New Bilibid Prison, up to 1954 when he became Director of Prisons.

My earliest recollection as a toddler  was  the Guards’ Quarters. The ground floor was home to bachelor prison guards. My father, who was superintendent, was assigned the whole second floor as his official residence.

From our second floor window, I had a clear view of the façade of the iconic white edifice which was the Bilibid Prison. The prison’s compound occupied a nine hectare lot, which housed prison dormitories, ideally built for 3,000 convicts.  It also housed  the administrative offices, a prison hospital and a prison chapel.

Right in front of prison compound was the sunken garden. It served as parade ground for prison guards who marched to the tune of the prison band under Prof. Francisco.  It also  doubled as  track and field oval where inter-school competitions were held.

Later, it hosted a well-maintained 9-hole golf course where even  children of prison employees got to learn their fundamentals from convicted golf pros. Prisoners served as caddies for 50 centavos per nine holes.

At one end of the garden is a man-made lake, garlanded by trees and flowers. In the middle of the lake stood  a mini-Statue of Liberty.

Except for a well-publicized prison failed prison break which occurred sometime in 1950 and the prison gangs rivalry around 1954, life inside the prison reservation was relatively quiet.

Both prison employees and prisoners attended the same masses inside the prison compound. The employees normally occupied the front rows, while the prisoners occupied the back rows. We received communion from prison chaplain Benedicto Arroyo.

Illiterate prisoners were encouraged to enrol in adult education classes. Later, a high school and a college were established inside the prison in cooperation with the Perpetual Help College system.

Prisoners with higher academic training served in offices as “orderlies”. Those with good conduct, (“deserving”, later known as “serving”) were allowed to do household chores in employee households between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The prison hospital  had adequate facilities, serving both employees and prisoners. My three siblings were all born inside the prison hospital, which at one time was headed by Dr. Bienvenido Alcantara. His wife, Dra. Avelina Alcantara, was a beloved figure, respected by prisoners. She could walk among prisoners, unescorted, at any time of day or night.

Prisoners had regular sports events. Many excelled in boxing and softball.

Movies were shown regularly in open theaters, inside and outside the compound. During Christmas, movie personalities would have shows inside the compound. Ma Mon Luk, the Mami King, regularly gave away boxes of his famous siopao.

Prisoners in Muntinlupa were known for their handicraft and excellent wood work. Inside  the  President Ramos Conference Room of  Malacanan Palace,  one can find  a huge rectangular table made partly of narra and partly of mahogany.

The table was  made by prisoners way back in 1937 and was given as a gift by the Prisons Director Eriberto Misa   to the late President Manuel Quezon.  

The table top is supported on both ends by massive legs which have intricate carvings, depicting women, kneeling back to back, carrying the table top on their shoulders.

Former Malacanan Museum Curator Jeremy Barns says that President Quezon was so impressed with the furniture that he pardoned the prisoners who carved the massive table. The prisoners’ names have since been inscribed on the underside of the table top.

My cousin, Bel Olivares-Cunanan, who  as  a teenager had the chance  to visit our home (the Director’s Quarters, after my father was appointed as Director of Prisons) described the prison reservation as “idyllic”.  

The circumferential road which led to the main prison was lined with decades-old mahogany trees. The Director’s Quarters, a pre-war two floor structure, was made of the finest wood and had intricately adorned furniture made by prisoners. Easily one of the tourist attractions, at that time, the quarters had a Japanese-style pond, a 20 meter pool, a social hall and had a large orchard of fruit-bearing trees, principally caimito.

A variety of birds also made the reservation their home. It was earlier declared a bird sanctuary by Director Bunye.

Writer Romeo P. Virtusio wrote a very nostalgic  account of his boyhood years – “Bilibid: growing up beneath prison walls.”  In his foreword, National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera said the book described that period  “when life in the early years of the present republic were relatively free of the frenzy of the Philippines of the 21st century.”

Decades later, it is so difficult for us former Batang Bilibid  to comprehend and accept  what had happened to the Bilibid of our youth - once ranked as among the best-run reformatory institutions in Asia.

Writer Jarius Bondoc,  in a scathing commentary of the present-day Bilibid, said: “All the major crimes happening nowadays are plotted inside Bilibid.”

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