An HLAF brand of compassion

Listening to my classmates talk about how haggard they are from waking up really early to working overtime, to doing “maka-bogo” things all day, to being treated as “muchacha” in some, I’d say I chose pretty well with HLAF (*taps shoulder).

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Though some would say our time was not maximized relative to that of our peers in other orgs and agencies, when we do have something to do, it would be something that would fill you up while emotionally draining you. Going to the courts and checking up on cases was our brief. It gave us names and numbers without faces, they’re not people – they are statistics. It gave us a background on how the justice system works, I saw faces of the people who handle criminals and victims alike, but the criminals and victims were still just statistics. When Atty. Alvarez brought us to the jails, she colored our world of black and white digits – red prevailed.

I have known from tv shows how Philippine jails look like, but unconsciously I didn’t necessarily picture it out to be too close to the real thing, sometimes even better than it. Now more than ever, prison conditions are under wide public scrutiny with the exponential haul for “Oplan Tokhang”. But not every 19-year old have the chance to see the raw reality of this battle.

While other normal teens go island-hopping, we went jail-hopping! I would say Angie, Clarisse and I had a very wild summer. While they talk about which beach has the bluest sea, we compare which court branches deserve a mouthful of lectures on prison life. They cry over uneven tans, we grow somber thinking of the population–capacity ratio of each jails we visit.

This job is NOT for sissies. Numbers look a lot better than faces in detailing misery and punishment. While it is very tempting to talk trash on judges and legal officers who do not seem to take their jobs too seriously, I learned that is human. If you dedicate your life to people’s problems, chances are you’d just take your own. And that is not exaggerated. Not many people have the emotional and mental capacity to deal with their own problems, how much more when added with others (and those that relate to their most basic of rights, no less!).

Studying Political Science for three years, we have discussed an array of wars, battles, economic upset, political upheavals and historical events. We are presented faces only if they are on the top of the ladder, the rest are numbers.  They are only specific if they are important, the rest are collective. They are only given identities if they are powerful, the rest are statistics. 5 weeks changed that perception for me. It made me think back of those brutal events, of those trying times and grasp the “people” behind the shadows of the prominent. It is not an exercise I would want to force into a habit.

I guess the biggest takeaway from my internship is how important and beautiful compassion is. It makes you see the world, not just look at it. It makes you live, rather than just exist. Touching people’s lives just because they are people and imperfectly human like you – that is the kind of compassion I marveled at in HLAF. It is something I wish to share someday.

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Week 3: I was touched.. (can u believe it??)

Aside from getting a mini heart attack from getting called up by the receptionist at Hall of Justice for my “too short” dress, this week went by pretty smoothly. A few meet-ups with Atty. Alvarez to brief us on our following missions and a few reminders on our assigned duties and the week was almost up.

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The highlight would be our visit to Brgy. Kalunasan again, but this time at the Female dormitory. I was kinda shocked with how lax their security was (there was only 1 guard posted in their entrance area) until we went inside. It might be funny because women are naturally so, but I couldn’t help thinking that the people there were so . . . domesticated! They were polite and always had a ready smile for us as they welcomes us to their (sparkling clean) abode. The compound was so freaking clean and the detainees were so freaking organized, you would’ve thought they were just freaking camping!

Hearing them talk woke me to the reality that they are detainees awaiting the turtle-pace legal process as patiently as they can, living in an almost 200% overpopulated area with very limited access to hygiene and proper food. Yet their lips were shining pink and red, they look clean and they are smiling. My emotionally-detached self was properly boggled. Their optimism was blinding.

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That visit made me think about how emotionally incapable I was. It grounded me and made me think about how sheltered my life was, having a family who steadies me at every stumble. In those detainees, I saw strength. They are people who made bigger mistakes than others and are forced to pay for it. They talked of hardships but there were more smiles than tears. They express utmost gratitude to the few people who are willing to lend hands and I could see how much respect and adoration they held for Atty. Alvarez. I’m pretty sure us interns mirrored the look too. These strong women embodies the true resilience of a Filipino, no matter how badly placed in life they are. It touched me, and it made me proud. I almost can’t believe it.

Week 4

This week has been the most lax ever as Atty. Alvarez was busy preparing for HLAF’s National Assessment on Saturday, July 15. Our supposed meeting on Monday got postponed to Tuesday but ultimately, we only met an hour before our meeting with other CSO officers on Wednesday.

We convened with Atty. Alvarez at Bo’s Coffee to brief us on the meeting. At 10 o’clock in Handuraw Pizza place, we met with a handful of representatives from different NGOs in Cebu. We found familiar faces in Atty. Euvic of Children’s Legal Bureau (CLB) whom we have met during the Trainor’s Training on Juvenile Justice Campaign held last June 30, and Kuya Bonn (?) whom we have seen last week during an assembly with various CSO officers.

The discussion centered on reviewing the monitoring toolkit the interns were tasked to answer during our court assessment. There were collection of opinions on the modification of the questionnaire and brainstorming of ideas and suggestions for improvement. The problems, challenges and evaluation would be presented by Atty. Alvarez, Clarisse and Angie during the National Assessment. The monitoring toolkit was just a prototype and the court assessment we have done were merely for a test-run. It would undergo a multitude of revisions for its official nation-wide launch targeted next year.

The gathering only lasted for a couple of hours. In the afternoon, Atty. Alvarez, Clang, Anj and I went to the Female Dorm in Mandaue jail. Last week when we visited the Female Dorm in Cebu City Jail, Atty. Alvarez stressed that that dorm was an exception, not a standard as we were quite amazed with how clean, home-y and un-jail like the place was. It is not something you would appreciate until you have another to compare it with, and what a contrast Mandaue’s was! Firstly, as it was not located in a remote area like Kalunasan, the jail was a lot more heavily guarded. The Female Dorm is also conjoined with the Male Dorm, separated only by a single gate. We had to pass by the Male Dorm to get to the Female’s. It was compact and stifling. We passed by detainees congested up in spaces behind bars. Though we could not gauge how small that space was, by how longingly they looked at the other detainees sitting in the small cafeteria on the other side of the bars, we could guess how cramped up they must have been. We later learned that Mandaue’s jail was a placeholder in one of the most congested jails in the region (or was it the country?).

Like what we did last week in Cebu City Jail, we faced the paralegals, with Atty. Alvarez giving them updates on the ongoings of the court and their cases. She also encouraged them to talk to her about different concerns regarding the status of their cases.

Visiting Mandaue’s jail, looking at their living conditions and hearing their stories are not for softies. It made me give mad respect for HLAF and other organizations and individuals who risk physical, mental and emotional health in doing what they can for people the society has more or less abandoned.

Anyway, to chase off the gloomy clouds, Atty. Alvarez treated us to Max’s chocolate tsampurado!

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Week 2

We finished our assigned cases in the RTC last week so we moved on to the MTC this time. MTC is located just a floor above RTC so physically, their court rooms are basically identical. Their contrast lies on their behavior. Judges at RTC are quite lax and informal. ll of the RTC courts we went to, their hearings started no less than a uarter of an hour over schedule. Since I was used to RTC’s delayed schedule, I dallied in going to MTC so one time in one branch, when I got there, there weren’t many people yet and the judge wasn’t in sight. I just sat comfortably and started doing my physical assessment on the courtroom when the clerk called my attention and asked what I was there for. I was startled since I didn’t think they’d mind me as I was wearing my visitor’s pass. I told them I was there for the hearing. They chuckled and told me it was long over. I couldn’t tell if they thought I was amusing or they were mocking me but they kept chuckling as I apologized and hastily got out. It was a lot more embarrassing than being late to class.

Thursday, we ate late lunch with Atty. Alvarez at Hukad in Ayala. She was with two other interns from law school. We updated each other on our activities and Atty. Alvarez decided our Ate’s can finish our task at MTC for Friday while we attend a forum at St. Mark’s hotel regarding juvenile jail.

Friday broke the monotony of the week. The event we were to attend was titled “Trainor’s Training on Juvenile Justice Campaign” organied by Children’s Legal Bureau (CLB).We asked Atty. Alvarez beforehand  if there was a dress code since we would be going to a hotel and she said we should just dress our age so we didn’t think much of the event, probably just another forum, although she did mention in passing that it was a trainer’s training. When I got there (I was a bit, JUST A BIT, late hehe), I was immediately ushered to register. I was perplexed at first since they didn’t even check my ID or ask from what affiliation I was. When I went in, I kinda shrank at the room’s formal-ish lay-out and the number of formally dressed adults. I did see some young people but a quarter of the attendance was composed of professionals. It was slightly intimidating and we were NOT prepared. I then realized how dumb we were to not do a research on the subject beforehand, assuming we would just be sitting there and listening to people talk. Although the subject matter was faintly familiar to us, we were surrounded by people who were passionate about this advocacy and I felt like it was disrespectful of us to come in like that with no prior relevant knowledge about it.

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The speakers were articulate and informative. They walked us through the facts and history of the law, its amendments, its implications. Law and science have been exhausted in presenting arguments after arguments on why lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 15 YO to 9 YO is totally disastrous and should have been incomprehensible.

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After dishing out all the relevant information they felt like we could cram, as it was a trainor’s training, the last speaker was tasked to talk about how we would be effective in carrying out the advocacy to the community and society in general. He gave us tips on how to better carry ourselves in front of an audience and how to demand and keep their attention to get our message across. He himself was very charismatic and did demand and keep our attention throughout his speech.

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The last part of the program was a workshop. We were divided into 3 categories – LGUs, NGOs and the interns (I forgot what term they used, just that the youth were in one group). With what we learned during the forum, we were tasked to present how we were going to advocate our cause against lowering the MACR to a specific set of audience. Most of our groupmates were members of Children’s Rights Advocates (CRA) while the others were student interns from other schools.

I went there empty-handed but I went out full of thoughts on how much unjust and mistakes there are in our system. How are things this bad when our country produces such excellent minds? I’m trying to comprehend why people go out on the streets so much to rally about things that don’t necessarily affect them directly. You can’t be human and mentally and emotionally able if you are exposed to these real sob stories and not feel the need to act. 

I feel nervous to see how much passion and realization this internship journey will instill in my monotonous life.

Friendly jail officers and grumpy judges

Saturday, June 16, 2017

The moment I heard about Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation and what the organization stands for, I’ve fixed my mind into going there for my internship. There is something human in helping people the state has deemed immoral and are more or less banished from society in a relative period of time. For me, HLAF is about “giving chances” to people many have given up on and considering it is done by the same cut of individuals who put them into jail – it is inspiring.

Of course, there is also the appeal of the experience and information I would gather for my most-important thesis. It is what I used to justify my application there to my parents when they vehemently opposed it. They did not like the thought of their daughter going into jails (and I was very excited when I was telling them about it too! -_-). Prisoners are locked behind bars for a reason, any normal parent would not want any of their children in their company and that is perfectly understandable. So I relented and contacted Movement for a Livable Cebu (MLC) if they still had a spot for interns. MLC was always my second choice since they were the org my group featured in a magazine for a project in one of our classes last semester. But things happened and ultimately I went to HLAF.hlafbanner_edited-1.png

We went to Kalunasan to visit CPDRC. I have never been there but it was one hell of a ride! I pitied our Uber driver, I don’t think he expected the challenging terrain too but he was pleasant, nonetheless. The sight that greeted us was a mob in the entrance of the male dormitory. It was Saturday and that apparently meant prisoners get to receive visitors with their gifts (mostly food).IMG_2220.JPG

It didn’t take us long to be ushered in the administrative building. The people there were extremely friendly and accommodating, as it was obvious they were quite fond and used to the presence of Atty. Alvarez.

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She apologized to them for the speaker she invited could not make it and proceeded to ready her presentation; she joked that she should take pictures of her “struggle is real” moments and send it to HLAF so they’d buy her a projector. She showed a short clip about the history and the implementation of the Mandela Rules. I couldn’t help but giggle at the sight of a handful of manly jail officers crowding around a laptop to see the video better.

Atty. Alvarez proceeded with her presentation, discussing the revised jail rules and an introduction to criminal and civil law. I was perplexed at first. She was talking about the bare necessities of criminal and civil cases to people working in a prison who dealt with the very people these laws were implemented upon. Shouldn’t they already know these? Nonetheless, I was touched by the effort and attention they paid Atty. Alvarez all throughout her lecture.

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We were also offered snacks of softdrinks and bread which we found out were baked by the prisoners themselves. It was warm and delicious, and Atty. even asked for take-out which they actually seemed excited to give!

We hitched a ride with a jail jeep, the one we were told they use to transport prisoners for hearings or medical appointments. We were even locked in and had two guards sitting outside! It was fun and we hope we wouldn’t be wearing orange jumpsuits the next time we ride one again.

After another bumpy ride came pizzaaaaa. Atty. Alvarez treated us to Shakey’s and we were only too happy (and hungry) to indulge. We met other co-intern Ate’s who are law students already. We discussed what we would be doing for the next week since Atty. would be off to Bohol for a couple of days.

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Monday, June 19, 2017

We were assigned to conduct a court monitoring in the Regional Trial Court (RTC). I’ve never been to a courtroom before so I didn’t know what to expect. I woke up REALLY early (ohmigosh the sacrifice!) so we’d get there well before 8:30 (regular starting time of hearings). We were sitting stiff, notebooks and monitoring checklist in hands observing the courtroom. We double checked our phones, making sure it was on silent mode as we’d have to pay Php 500 if it rings in the middle of the hearing. 2 hours later and still no judge in sight.  Later, Ate Eden (our co-intern and 4th yr Law student from USC) told us judges are too busy to be on time, and even if they do, if they say they’re not late then they’re not. Maybe I should aspire to be a judge some time.

We sat in the front row just behind one side of the counsels because the back pews were for the detainees. The counsels and fiscal were all chatty around us, and even asked us if we only studied political science because we sucked at math. It was funny because it was extremely on-point but I wondered if they related to it too. Hmm.

There were 15 cases assigned to the court for the day. Almost a quarter of that was for arraignment only. I was disappointed as I was expecting some shot-fire argument between two counsels, the one we see in TV or we read about in John Grisham novels but hey, this is the real world and all I saw was just piles upon piles of papers and half-eaten crackers and coffee and grumpy clerks and chatty lawyers and bored and sleepy judges. I was sad but it felt real. If I were to pursue law, this would be my world. It was eye-opening for me.

We met up with Atty. Alvarez and our co-interns on Wednesday, June 21 to update each other and chat. We just had to finish 6 cases in another branch to complete our assignment for the week. We were back to the RTC the next day. I actually saw my home province’s Vice Mayor Atty. Alfonso Pestolante in the courtroom, he was representing a case. He’s good friends with my father but he left early so I didn’t have a chance to ask for a picture with him.

More than the lawyers though, I was interested in observing the judges. I’ve been in the presence of 3 judges since we’ve started and their characters were quite in contrast. One was soft-spoken (the friendly fiscal sassily complained he couldn’t hear her clearly) and she was creepily smirking all throughout the hearing, the second one I would label kinda rude – he kept on going to the backdoor while a lawyer was performing a cross-examination on a witness, who does that?!, and the last was funny and relaxed but he seemed too involved in the cases, he appeared bias over half the time he spoke.

All things said, I had much fun in our first week. Visiting places and meeting people in my planned field made it real and I realized I really am an adult already, picturing myself going there in non too-casual clothes and with a more mature mindset. Atty. Alvarez promised us more exciting days and I can’t wait! Considering I’m as lazy as they get, I’m literally surprised by my enthusiasm too HAHAHAH

Week 2 can’t come any sooner.