From Bacolod in the Philippines, to Polunksy Death Row unit in Texas
The blogs and letters keep coming in fast and furious. Mark is writing about continuous searches of his cell that keep him living with “all my property on the floor waiting for another raid… or move to the hole.” In earlier blogs he detailed the raid, the destruction of his legal files, no clean towel for 12 days and running out of toilet paper… not to mention stamps.
His girlfriend wrote me:
“I did receive some personal letters from him also, Ilan, he is drinking water all day because he is so hungry, he said that’s the only way he can ease his stomach. His hands are shaking because of the hunger. This is horrible! And legal work? THAT ALONE pisses me off, but to know Mark is sitting there in a cell, no showers, nothing, and hungry…. I just don’t know what to do to help.”
And all of that because of illegal cell phones which made their way into Death Row unit. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice admits those cell phones made their way probably by underpaid prison guards who made extra money smuggling these phones in. Yet rather than try to find these guards and punish them, the entire prison is punished.
The lockdown is now in its 4th week and no real media coverage; demand for access to prisons… an investigation… Nothing! Soon Mark will run out of stamps or his typewriter will be taken away under one pretext or another. Then the door will be sealed tight , and so will be the last independent voice telling us the human reality behind this lock down.
While reading Mark’s blogs my mind drifts to my first prison visit. It was in 1983 in a provisional town on the island of Negros in the Philippines. I came to Negros to interview and follow Father Niall O’Brien, an Irish Columban missionary priest, and Father Brian Gore (an Australian). They were arrested on trumped up charges of conspiring with local Marxist rebels to assassinate the mayor of a small provincial town on the Island. It was the last year of President Ferdinand Marcos’ rule. The repression was increasing and the country was dead poor, plagued by violence and a growing Maoist insurgency. Bacolod Municipal Prison had the look and the feel of a medieval dungeon. I remember all the faces pressed against the bars, the terrible fetid aroma and the blackness inside. The cells were large with dozens of prisoners sleeping on the bare floor sharing one open toilet ( a hole in the ground) and some spigot that was supposed to represent showers.
We entered without a problem heading for the priests’ cells. To my surprise they did not complain about the conditions but talked instead about the humanity of the prisoners . They went on and on about how nice the guards , how poor they are and how friendly the prisoners are. This is how Father O’Brien remembers it: “All the prisoners were stunned that a foreigner was in that prison, they were all desperately poor. There was a phone there but until we came no one used it. I remember sitting in the middle of them and starting talking about hope.” .
I was in Bacolod for a week going to visit and film with the priests every day. After the initial shock had worn off, I noticed the prisoners’ families living in tents out side the minimum security wing of the prison, cooking for their loved ones. The guards were very accommodating, even helped us to carry our gear into the prison yard. The prisoners were allowed to sell their craft so they could buy more food. Suddenly, this medieval dungeon felt very human, a teeming society.
I remembered Bacolod prison while reading Mark’s blogs. Polunsky is a highly modern prison, a five-star hotel in comparison to the 17th century Bacolod Jail built by the Spanish governor who ruled the island. Yet despite the dismal conditions I found Bacolod far more human than Polunsky. The poor, barely literate, guards mingled with the poor, illiterate prisoners, with chickens running in the yard soon to be killed for food by the families who are cooking for their loved one to supplement the daily diet of rice and one dried, salty fish. Everyone was struggling to survive including the guards and the prison warden. Poverty was a great equalizer.
What emerges from Mark’s blogs and other prisoners’ letters is that Polunsky Death Row Unit might be squeaky clean and modern but it is far less human.
I am worried about Mark now that he claims to be targeted because of his blogs. I trusted the poor, illiterate guards in the Philippines. I do not trust the guards in Polunsky. The depersonalized violence hidden by legalistic rules and regulations scares me more than the old fashioned human interaction in Bacolod, where rules and regulations are to be negotiated daily by both prisoners and guards. Now as Mark’s stamps run out who knows what will happen? Who can prove that if he would be beaten up it would be unprovoked? Who could dispute the prison’s version if indeed his typewriter would be taken? How can we really know what would happen in these searches when the only version we would hear would be the sanitized, terse press releases. The Geneva Convention forces a country to allow a visit of Red Cross monitors to its POW camps. Will the State of Texas allow an impartial group to visit its prisons? And if not, will the Federal government step in… or international human rights organizations?