By Merlina Hernando-Malipot
They may have been deprived of liberty, but not of education.
Wearing white shirts and denim pants, instead of the usual orange shirts they wear as uniforms, 139 inmates or Persons Deprived of Liberty (PsDL) sat in neatly-arranged monobloc chairs as they waited for the Eighth Accreditation and Equivalency (A&E) Passers Recognition and Graduation Ceremony to commence.
The Department of Education (DepEd), in partnership with the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), led the recognition and graduation ceremony for the passers of the A&E Test for both Elementary and Junior High School (JHS) at the Maximum Security Compound (MaxSeCom) in New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City on July 15.
Part of the Reformation Programs of the BuCor, an agency under the Department of Justice (DOJ), is to facilitate training and education for the PsDL. One of these is the implementation of the Alternative Learning System (ALS) program that caters to PsDL who cannot read nor write or those who would like to continue their studies while serving their sentences.
Batch 2018 yielded a 96. 52-percent passing rate after taking the A & E test. There were 43 PsDL who passed the A&E Elementary level with a passing rate of 91.4 percent, and 96 inmates who passed the A&E JHS test with 98. 96 percent passing rate. There were 144 PsDL who took the ALS A&E test at the NBP’s MaxSeCom.
The A&E test is an examination taken by ALS completers to “measure the competencies of those who have neither attended nor finished formal elementary or secondary education.” The test aims to give those who have neither attended nor finished formal elementary or secondary school “a chance to earn their very own diploma and proceed to a higher level of learning.”
The passers of the ALS A&E are given a certificate/diploma which bears the seal and the signature of the DepEd Secretary. This will certify their competencies as comparable to graduates of the formal school system. As such, they are qualified to enroll in high school for elementary level passers and to enroll in college for secondary level passers.
DepEd Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Service (PAS) and ALS Program and Task Force G.H. Ambat served as the guest of honor and speaker during activity. In her speech, she congratulated the graduates and shared government’s efforts to improve the ALS Program.
DepEd, Ambat explained, has been undertaking various efforts to “expand and strengthen” its non-formal education program which covers the PsDL – among others. “We believe that everyone has a potential to contribute to their families and respective communities,” she said.
Despite their circumstances, Ambat congratulated the graduates for “seizing the opportunity” to learn through the ALS. She noted while it is inevitable for some PsDLs to feel hopeless as they serve their sentences behind bars, it is an admirable feat that “they did not let the opportunity to learn pass them by.”
In his closing remarks, BuCor Deputy Director General for Administration Assistant Secretary Melvin Ramon Buenafe thanked the DepEd for its support in implementing the ALS program commended the graduates for their success. “Ipakita natin na kahit nandito tayo sa loob, tayo ay may mga nagagawang madandang bagay na nakakabuti hindi lang para sa ating sarili kundi pati sa iba pag tayo ay laya na,” he added.
Education is ‘freedom’
For the inmates who are taking the ALS, education does not only free their minds off the loneliness of being secluded but also serves as their ticket to freedom – literally.
NBP Training and Education Chief CTISNP. Stella May Lat explained that PsDL who are under the Reformation Program of BuCor – such as those who take the ALS – are entitled to additional Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA).
Across all camps – Minimum, Medium, and Maximum – Lat said that the inmates get additional 15 days of GCTA on top of the 20 days given to them on a monthly basis. Without any violations committed or reprimands, she explained that each PsDL under ALS may get up to 420 GCTAs in a year. GCTAs, she said, “allow qualified inmates to get out of prison on reduced sentences.”
Lat said that because of the GCTA, more and more PsDL are interested to take the ALS program. “At the start, the GCTA is the main reason why they enroll in ALS but eventually, they learn to love and appreciate the value of education because they know that it will help them once they get out,” she explained in a mix of English and Filipino.
To date, Lat said that only the NBP’s Medium camp offers the complete set of ALS offerings – from Elementary, JHS and College in partnership with an accredited university. “We are still open to the idea of offering college ALS here in Maximum in the future,” she added.
Meanwhile, Muntinlupa City Division ALS Coordinator Ada Trinidad Tagle explained that there are 2,578 inmates undergoing the ALS program for School Year (SY) 2019-2020. Of which, 1,394 are under the Functional Literacy Section (FLS) and 1,184 are under the Vocational Section (VS). In the ALS-Maximum, there is a total of 64 teaching staff – 31 for the FLS and 33 in the VS. They get the same amount of GCTA as the learners.
Wind of Change
For the recent passers of the A & E test, the wind of change has begun to flow.
After the ceremony, three inmates agreed to share their experiences while completing ALS and passing the A & E test. In an interview, they recalled how the ALS “saved” them and how they look forward to the life outside using the knowledge and skills they have learned from the program.
“Bert,” 56, is the graduating class’ valedictorian for JHS level. He hails from Cebu and was a graduate of Industrial Engineering. He has three children. “Bago ako pumasok dito, maganda ang buhay ko, ng pamilya ko,” he shared.
Everything has changed in 2001 when he committed murder and was sentenced to reclusion perpetua. “Hindi ko matanggap na sa isang iglap, nagbago ang buhay ko… gusto ko ng magbiti at magpakamatay noon,” he added. Then, he met a pastor that changed his life. “Gusto ko na mabuhay ulit, gusto kong lumaban,” he said.
Currently, “Bert” has served 18 years in prison. Recognizing the value of education, he enrolled in the ALS program, completed it and passed the A & E test. “Masaya ako kasi kahit nakakulong ako, nakakapag-aral kami dito,” he said.
After completing the JHS level, he plans to take up a vocational course which, he believed, will help him start anew when he gets out. He also urged other inmates to take the ALS program. “Hinihikayat ko sila na kumuha ng ALS kasi marami silang matutununan at naniniwala din ako na ang edukasyon ang magpapalaya sa amin,” he added.
For Rajesth Rimando, 38, the program made him realize the value to education. “Ngayon lang ako nakakatanggap ng certificate at masaya ako kasi may kabuluhan yung ginagawa ko dito sa loob,” he said. He recently passed the A & E test for JHS level.
In 2008, Rimando was sentenced to reclusion perpetua for committing murder and frustrated murder. He was transferred to the NBP maximum almost two years ago after serving 10 years in a Cavite prison. He decided to take the ALS program because he failed to complete his studies when he was still outside. “Hindi ako nakatapos ng high school kasi nag-rebelde ako, nakapasama sa maling barkada at naligaw ng landas,” he shared.
With the continued support of his family, Rimando is taking a vocational course under ALS and looks forward to seeing his two children when he becomes free. “Sa may mga experience na kagaya ko, ang masasabi ko lang ay sana ma-appreciate nila yung time na nakakasama pa nila yung pamilya nila at mahalin nila kasi napakahirap kapag bigla silang nawala,” he added.
William Tero, 37, also passed the A & E for Elementary Level. Currently, he has served 18 years in prison after he was convicted of rape and was sentenced to reclusion perpetua. Originally from Albay, he failed to complete his studies due to poverty and difficult access to school. “Grade 5 lang ang inabot ko dahil sa sobrang hirap ng buhay,” he said. His father is a carpenter and her mother is a housewife. He has nine siblings.
Tero used to spend two hours going to and from the nearest school which was about four kilometers away from his house. “Mahirap mag-aral kasi malayo, tatawid ng ilog at bundok, pero ngayon nakakapag-aral na ako dito sa loob,” he said. His dream was to become a soldier but now, he is eyeing to take a vocational course that would hopefully enable him to earn a living once he gets out.
Don’t Lose Hope; Be a Blessing to Others
Meanwhile, Ambat also urged other PDLs – who have yet to avail of the ALS program – to utilize it to their advantage. “Whether you are inside or outside the NBP, the knowledge that you will gain from education – through the ALS – will help you,” she said. Through the ALS, she expressed optimism that the PsDL will find inspiration and hope – especially when they are able to complete the program and pass the A & E test which will enable them to proceed to a higher level of education.
While “life is not always a bed of roses,” Ambat urged the graduates to “nonetheless remember their experience in ALS” and how it changed their lives, inspired them to be better, and gave them hope. “We look forward to see you succeed, thrive and contribute to your families and respective communities in the future,” she said.
Ambat also reminded the graduates to never to forget the people who have helped them along the way. “Aside from hard work and being good, we succeed because there are people who helped us,” she said. “I hope that you can use your success to lift others up,” she ended.