“Behind Bars” in Bilibid—everyone felt excited when they heard about the field trip. Even weeks before the actual encounter, the old feeling did not change. All of us thought that it was just another service recollection where we would get to meet new people from different walks of life. However, when we were already boarding the bus, this excitement turned into a sense of apprehension on the day itself. This feeling grew more and more intense as we entered the gates of Bilibid prison. Seeing the 12-layer barbed wired fence already gave us the chills, plus there were the gigantic brick walls keeping the prisoners inside.
When the class alighted at the medium security compound, we were instantly welcomed by the prisoners. Their shirts were either brown, blue, or orange, depending on the gravity of their crimes. After that, we were led to a classroom. There, we would be meeting our buddies for the day. Again, everyone felt the sense of vulnerability and fright, but all that changed when I met my buddy.
His name was Reylan Mejila. He is currently in Grade 8, although he is already 30 years old. Like many other prisoners, his body was filled with tattoos, which I thought was a mark of a criminal. Scary, I thought, but I was wrong. As we both conversed in Filipino, my sense of fear melted away. First, my buddy recounted numerous stories of his activities while in prison. He and his fellow inmates often engaged in recreational activities like painting, making handicrafts, playing basketball, and many more. Yet, prison life also burdens him greatly, and one of the struggles is having to raise money just to be able to buy his everyday necessities. He does tiresome favors for people, like massaging them and washing their clothes, only for some spare change. Truly, life is harsh inside Bilibid. In addition to that, he says, there is something that burdens him far more than just money, and at that moment, Rey was on the verge of tears. He told me that he misses his family and has not seen them for 9 years. “Yayakapin ko sila paglaya ko,” were his words, feeling regret for committing his crimes. My fears shifted to pity and sadness.
After that emotional moment, the conversation between us shifted again. After he narrated his inspiring stories, Reylan wanted to share with me some words of advice. The first piece of advice he told me was to choose my peers wisely. Second, Rey told me to value my blessings, such as my family, my possessions, and of course, my life as a free citizen. I promised myself that I would spend more quality time with my family and appreciate the times I spend with my friends. Lastly, he told me to listen intently to people who encourage me to change for the better because oftentimes, they are the ones who really care about me. He felt reluctant at first because these advice often came with his own personal experiences. However, he eventually started telling me more and more stories. My buddy felt the urge to reveal these life lessons because he did not want me to make the same mistakes that he did.
We wanted the conversation to go on, but we started to feel hungry so my buddy and I decided to have lunch. We both had rice meals with iced-tea. Throughout the time we ate, I was surprised by his reaction. My buddy said he had not eaten anything like this in years. I felt like I had really made him feel special, as if I had given a moment of happiness. Unfortunately, my time with Rey was coming to an end. We said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch by writing to each other. Then, our class left the medium security compound.
Before we left Bilibid, we visited the lethal injection chamber. It was the capstone of the Behind Bars experience, and possibly the most horrifying experience of my life. Being in the facility, there was a sense of unease among the class. There was a haunting atmosphere since this was the place where seven people were put to death. We were first led to the room where the prisoners had their last night. Then, the next room was where the three phlebotomists prepared the three chemical mixtures of death. This kills the person by first putting the person to sleep with sodium thiopental, and pancuronium bromide to stop the breathing. Lastly, potassium chloride is injected to stop the heart, and thus cause cardiac arrest. I could not imagine my buddy Rey being strapped for execution. Moreover, imagine being the relative of the one to be put to death.
The Bilibid “Behind Bars” experience created a new imprint in our minds that will not be soon forgotten. Through countless anecdotes, we discovered many things from people who are totally different from us, people who are even considered outcasts. Our class was exposed to how much others could value something we give little importance to and take for granted. Looking through their eyes, I witnessed how a criminal suffered with burdens inside the prison cell and how one can truly regret his actions through the consequences he must face. That is why my buddy constantly reminded me to always think about my actions, together with their corresponding consequences before actually doing them.
Above all else, I believe the main lesson we have learned in this experience is the value of forgiveness. It taught us how even criminals can change for the better, but sometimes this value is neglected by free society. Maybe we are the criminals for being harsh to people who seem evil. Who knows, maybe beneath those tattoos and scars is a changed man, trying to start a new life amongst society who still thinks he is a criminal. People commit all sorts of mistakes, even towards us, but we should just be brave enough to open up and forgive them again.