That call perked up some of the inmates who were standing on the cemented walk beside Brigada 9 of the Cebu City jail, euphemistically called the Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center (BBRC). They hastily lined up in front of the kitchen––a nipa-and wood structure separate from the jail’s main building. Near the door was the cook, who was wearing a sleeveless shirt that made visible the words “Ina Ko” tattooed crudely on his biceps. Near him was a man in maong shorts, a delicately drawn python adorning the entirety of his short, thin legs.
“We are fifty-two in Brigada Singko,” the python-legged man told the cook.
Then he turned to his ka-brigada. “Don’t fool around this time. This noon, we were short by three plates. I’m still investigating who got more than their designated rations.”
Nobody reacted. The line started moving.
“One for me,” a half-naked skinhead said. The cook scooped a cupful of steam-cooked corn grits from one of two half-barrel containers and placed it on the inmate’s plate.
“Two for me,” a fair-skinned young man wearing a loose shirt and tight maong pants said. The python-legged man eyed him suspiciously.
“The other one’s for Nico, my kasalo,” the young man said. “He’s waiting for me inside. Should I tell him you’re suspicious?”
“Okay, okay,” the python-legged man snorted. The cook obliged and the fair- skinned lad walked away. He passed by inmates of the other cells waiting for their turn.
Brigada 5 was in the main building’s right wing, which also housed Brigadas 1 and 6.
“Kojak!” shouted a fat man who was with a group playing mahjong near the right wing door. “Get my ration. Take some of it if you want.” A boy watching hantak ran to the left wing, to Brigada 7. He got out bringing a plate and ran towards the kitchen. The fair-skinned one walked on to the lobby, passing by another group of inmates playing the popular card game piyatpiyat.
“Royskie,” yelled a bearded man from Brigada 1. He waved a white shirt at the fair-skinned boy. “Twenty pesos. I need some money for a stick of marijuana.”
“No money,” the fair-skinned lad shouted back. He almost bumped into an inmate with long hair and a face heavily made up. The gay one’s eyes brightened when he recognized Royskie. He stuck his tongue out and licked his lips like a bold starlet
Royskie rebuffed him and hurried inside Brigada 5.
Brigada 5, like the other detention cells, is a box of concrete with the wall facing the lobby made of iron bars. It had an electric fan and two flourescent lamps. Near the middle were two makeshift rooms called kubol fashioned from straw sacks. The ceiling had a couple of holes big enough for a teargas cannister to pass through.
“Here,” Royskie said as he gave the plate he was carrying to a man sitting near the kubol. He was wearing a pair of faded denim shorts and a blue shirt. Tattooed from his knee down were the words “NICO KID.”
“Place it inside the kubol,” Nico said. Royskie did what he was told then went back to his kasalo, or meal partner.
“Will the plan push through?” he whispered. Nico puffed the cigarette he was holding then inhaled deeply. He tried trying to form rings out of the smoke, then stared blankly at the ceiling.
“Yes,” he said. Will you be joining us?”
“I thought it over last night.” Royskie said. “But I think it’s too risky. I mean, at least for me. My mother is following up my bail bond. Besides, I think they don’t have a solid case against me. Rebellion is difficult to convict, my lawyer told me. Until hope is lost, I will just to stay here in the meantime.”
“I expected that answer,” Nico shot back. “Good for you. You still have parents who are willing to spend money for a prodigal son. Me? I’ve been here for five years already. A few hearings, no lawyers. I miss my wife and daughter in Sudlon. So I will have to take the risk. If I succeed, good. If not, what the heck. Die now, die later, the same die, isn’t it?”
Brigada 5 sprang back to life as the other inmates returned with their rations.
“Make way! Make way!” shouted somebody from the lobby. Royskie and Nico stood up. The python-legged man and three other inmates ushered a thin, pale-faced youth into Brigada 5. He had on a red shirt, a pair of maong pants, rubber shoes and a gold-plated wristwatch.
“Newcomer?” an inmate asked no one in particular as the group went inside the kubol adjacent to that of Nico. Royskie smiled. The ritual had become predictable. The newcomer would be stripped naked, his body checked for tattoos of underworld gangs, then interrogated.
Batang Cebu 45 controlled BBRC. Its members were identifiable by the words BC 45 tattooed on the body, with the initials TWT or “Time Will Tell” added to it.
Non-gang members were considered lesser mortals inside and could be stabbed for no clear reason. More so with members of BC 45’s traditional enemies, like the Sputnik, Sigue-Sigue and Batang Samar-Leyte gangs.
A prisoner who was assisting the python-legged man went out of the kubol.
“Give me that old shirt hanging there,” he told a young man who was sitting in the corner. “Also bring that shorts and briefs inside that blue bag. Is that your slipper? I’ll borrow that.”
Minutes later, the newcomer went out of the kubol wearing old shirt, and shorts. He no longer had with him his rubber shoes and wristwatch.
A group of prisoners carrying two pails entered the Brigada. The inmates lined up once more to get the other half of their ration.
“We have a new occupant, he needs food. Reserve something for him,” the python-legged man told the leader of the group, a trustee—an inmate who had so gained the confidence of the warden and jail guards he was given a separate quarter inside the administration building.
“Wait here,” Royskie told Nico. He went inside the kubol and took a plastic bowl.
He joined the line of inmates getting their viand consisting of a piece of tinolang bangus and dried fish the size of an index finger. Their rations complete, Royskie, Nico and the rest of the Brigada 5 inmates ate their supper.
Royskie spotted the newcomer and called him.
“What’s your name?” Royskie asked.
“Martin,” the newcomer answered meekly.
“What’s your case?”
He didn’t answer.
“You’re inside the jail now. We’re all prisoners here and we don’t have any secret. So go on, give us an honest answer,” Nico said.
“Marijuana, illegal possession,” Martin said. Nico laughed.
“Look, boy,” he said. “There are many like you here, locked up for possessing a few sticks of marijuana. You know what? Inside this jail you can buy marijuana at P20 per stick. See that man standing near the toilet? He’s a friend of one of the jail guards. You can buy marijuana from him, if you want to.”
“Come on, man,” Royskie said. “It’s still too early to tell him how bad things are going here. Let’s eat now. Martin, you wait for your ration. The worst thing that can happen to us here is getting sick with ulcer and losing our mind because of hunger.”
Minutes later, all the inmates in the Brigada prayed in front of the framed portrait of the Sacred Heart. Teroy, an inmate with rosary beads for a necklace, led the prayer. Then they filed out to the jail’s open space for fresh air.
“You see that?” Nico whispered to Royskie. He was staring at a portion of the high wall of the compound. The fence was topped by netted wires that had holes in them. Behind the wall was the roof of the two-story detention building for minors and women.
“We can pass through those holes by stretching the wires. We then jump to the roof and finally down to the street,” Nico said.
“But how can one climb up there? It is too high,” Royskie shot back.
“See that long wood?” Nico said. “We will place it in an inclined position against the wall so we can climb up.”
“What about the guards?” Royskie said. Nico told him to look at the two towers visible from where they were standing. They were empty. Nico smiled, then shook Royskie’s hands.
“I’ll go now,” he said. “I have to be with the others. Take good care of yourself here. If by any chance you are freed and you go back to the mountains, visit me in Sudlon. I’ll cook chicken for you.”
“Good luck,” Royskie said. “Give my regards to your wife and daughter. And be ready with the chicken because I’ll be in Sudlon anytime soon.” They both laughed.
Royskie looked at Nico for a moment then went to Martin who was sitting on a piece of wood near the wall of Brigada 9.
“From now on you will be my kasalo,” Royskie said.
“What about Nico?” Martin said.
“Don’t mind him. Do you have a watch?”
“They took it.”
“Sorry, I forgot. But that’s normal here. I mean, the taking of your things. But that’s only for the first day. Your things will either be given to those scheduled to go to the Munti or kept by the mayor of the Brigada. After the first day, you can already bring your other belongings without worrying these will be stolen. See that man guarding the door of Brigada 5? He’s a menaria, our version of a security guard. Thieves will be punished. Do you have a tattoo?”
Martin shook his head.
“I mean a BC 45 tattoo. If you have one, then you’re one with us, a kausa. If you’re gang member, you have some privileges. Non-gang members should not do something bad here or tsak! and they’re dead.”
Royskie stopped talking when he saw the inmates lift the long wood.
“Let’s go inside,” he whispered to Martin. They were near the main door when the siren wailed. Lights from the tower flooded the grounds; bursts of gunfire followed.
“Run!” Royskie shouted.
“Run! Run!” yelled the others. Royskie stopped for a moment and saw some of the inmates still clambering up the fence. The others were jumping back to the ground. Bullets tore through the air, forming thin streaks of light in the dark. Royskie ran to Brigada 5.
“Go inside fast,” the python-legged man shouted as he opened the door wide.
“The others? Where are the others?” the menaria asked no one in particular. Then the firing ceased. After several minutes the bell rang.
“Bilang! Bilang!” said somebody outside. The python-legged man went inside the Brigada and joined the other inmates who sat on the floor in rows of five. Three jail guards, two of them carrying M-16 rifles and the other one carrying a folder, came. They stood near the door.
“Okay, count!” the guard with the folder said.
“That’s fifty-two including myself,” said the python-legged man.
“Fifty-two?” asked the guard. “You have a newcomer so you’re fifty-three. Who’s missing?”
“Who’s missing?” the guard shouted. Still nobody answered.
“Okay, “I’ll check on that later. But I tell you there’s a dead man out there in the middle of the street.” The guards moved on to Brigada 6.
The inmates stood up murmuring as they went to their favorite spots. Royskie went to a corner and sat pressing his back against the wall. Martin followed him.
“Where’s Nico?” he asked.
“Just shut up, will you?” Royskie said. He fell silent and stared blankly at the ceiling. “Nico is missing, Nico is missing,” he heard some of the inmates whisper.”
–By Candido O. Wenceslao
(Published in Sun.Star Weekend in 1991 and based on my experience when I was jailed at the BBRC for three months in 1987. More than a year later, after my second arrest, my rebellion case was dropped.)