Fr Chris Ganzon writes from Digos, Mindanao, Philipines in regard to one aspect of the life and mission of their community, in the context of establishing a new parish - Prison Ministry:
The Marists have served in the two jails of Digos City, Philippines for the last ten years. We have been chaplains at that time at the Provincial Rehabilitation Jail (PRC) with about 400 inmates and the City jail with about 800 inmates. There has been many developments in Prison Life over the years and we have built a ministry with Lay Marists and parishioners. We focused on getting to know the prisoners, providing catechesis, faith sharing, Sacrament of Reconciliation, celebration of the Sunday Eucharist twice a month in each jail. We also provide medicine for the sick and from time to time facilitate visits from high school students and Church organisations.
It's safe to say prison life is not a bed of roses. Sometimes there was overcrowding and prisoners took it in turn to sleep at night. Filipinos are resilient people and inmates adapt well to their new situation. There there will always be a smile on their face. To be honest I have never felt fear in relating to the inmates and would not necessarily know who were the most dangerous. Normally the inmates will spend anything from 8 to 12 years in prison before they are convicted and transferred to a National Penal Colony about 4 hours away.
During this past year there has been a sea change in their way of life. The world has heard of President Duterte's war on drugs which has led to many deaths since he came into office a few years. The Church has relentlessly condemned such blatant abuse of human rights but every so often new cases occur. In the prisons with little publicity, a system was brought in called 'plea bargaining' where prisoners on drug charges could enter into dialogue with a Judge, admit responsibility for their crimes and get a reduced sentence. It came about when a prisoner challenged the constitution on this issue and won, so that prisoners on drugs charges throughout the Philippines walked free. It was wonderful to see the response of all the prisoners. There was a renewed sense of hope and trust in the justice system.
For the prisoners it was too good to be true and soon they would be walking out the front gate. Over 120 inmates were freed from the PRC this past year and it has brought untold happiness to their families. It is difficult to fathom how the Duterte administration would sanction early release with their overall policy on drugs but for many of the most vulnerable people in Society it has given then a new sense of freedom and hope.
Fr Chris Ganzon sm , Superior of Philippines District