My time in Filipino prison(s)

How I became a volunteer at Bureau Buitenland in the Philippines

I remember seeing an add to apply for volunteer to volunteer to visit dutch people in Filipino jails. I was curious and thought, perhaps it is good to help someone locked-up and to give them some inspiration and comfort. And I did, I applied and was accepted. In short... you volunteer for the dutch probation, to check how people are in prison, their medical status, their spirit and to give attention and support. With the goal it would be easier for the prisoner to reintegrate in Dutch society after the time served. The probation has the main office in the Netherlands. The embassy in the country abroad has staff who visits the person locked up as well, and they give advice and support. They can help someone when medical attention is needed and with paper work. Sometimes just showing their face will help the prisoner. As a volunteer you are a sort of in between the probation and embassy. You are their eyes and ears and will check how the person in prison is doing. The issue in my experience, was that what we do in the Netherlands, with Bureau Buitenland, is kind of special in the world. In the prisons in the Philippines, and throughout the years I have visited many, they are not familiar with volunteers who visit prisoners with no further responsibilities. Other countries don't have this service as well. Some of the other volunteers would say they are visiting as a volunteer for the embassy and sometimes they even have embassy passes (like in Thailand). So, after filling in some forms, an interview and a meeting at the embassy with the staffmember in charge, I was accepted as a volunteer. My first visit was a person in prison in the province, together with the dutch staffmember of the Embassy as a sort of "training". My collegue was a nice guy, very hands-on, direct, clear, friendly and trustworthy. Throughout the years as collegues, I realized we (in the Philippines) were lucky with him.

My visits

In the Philippines when you visit someone it depends how it goes... depending on the place for example where the prison is situated or how many people work in the prison. At one point, I was able to enter the prison through the car exit and would wave and say hi. No further bag checks or questions asked! In larger prisons, you have to check in, give all your papers, report to an officer that you arrived and you have to wait until the person you visit will show up. One time, I waited 2 hours. Everything in the Philippines goes through relationships and sometimes I would donate one of the books to the security officer in prison instead of the person I would visit. In some prisons you can bring chocolate, in others they will take the foil out around the bar, since foil will be used to smoke shabu (drugs). In some prisons you can bring dutch books in other prisons dutch books are not allowed, since the staff should be able to read the text to check if the books are safe. In a nutshell that is my experience.

The prisoner and I

To me my visits were mutual beneficial. And I learned that the person in prison would get what he would give. A smiling prisoner, living in the Philippines for years, would get positive responses from others. A cosy prisoner, very accustomed person living in the Philippines, would get many treats from others and would know their way inside the prison. A prisoner captured in a different kind of prison due to visa issues, were definitely off under worse circumstances. Worse when you dont have the back up and money to sustain. An easy going person would be able to fit in easier and would be treated that way. A newbe, a person not being in the Philippines for a long time, would have many more cultural struggles to survive and somethings would be hard to accept. Patience is the key and not loosing your patience. I saw many people struggling with it. The visits would be mutual beneficial in a way that I would think about life in general and would give a piece of me, in energy, love and acceptance. As my mentor would say, it is not about the fact if someone is guilty or not. It is not your job to condemn others. I would be on my mind in certain visits. Sometimes I would lift up my own spirits to give energy and positivity to the other person. With most prisoners we would talk about life and subjects to ponder on. I wonder how it is with some people. You become sort of friends, through the years, even though you are not friends and you can't keep in touch. The balance what can be done and is acceptable and what isnt is a thin line as well. You can bring a book, but you can't buy a gift for somebodies daughter and deliver at their adress. So you have to be strong and establish your borders. 

In retrospect

The guidance of Bureau Buitenland was really good, there was professionality, attention and seriousness. Multiple hours of travel sometimes just for an one hour talk, was getting exhausting after more than a year, with visits every 4-8 weeks. I was able to meet other dutch people who visited other prisoners abroad in other countries. We shared knowledge and discussed challenges. All in all an interesting, knowledgable time as a volunteer. When you have the chance, I would recommend it, and do it again no doubt....




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