Shay Cullen describes the life of children imprisoned in the Philippines LITTLE has changed in the Philippines prison system since that day several years ago when I found 6-year-old Rosie behind prison bars, clutching a drinks can and crying her heart out for her mother.
A dozen or so other street children were sprawled on the hard concrete floor, unconscious with exhaustion and hunger. Some were knocked out from the toxic fumes they inhaled from a plastic bag filled with industrial glue – taken when local police rounded them up.The cheap drug was their only remedy for the constant pangs from their empty stomachs.
Rosie was too young for that. She had been taken from her mother who earned a living as a street vendor selling peanuts to tourists. The woman was expected to turn over her earnings to get her child released.
These were children of God robbed of their dignity and rights. It served as a stark reminder of the words of Jesus of Nazareth when He told us that when we see children, we see Him, and whatever we do to them we do to Him.
That night, behind prison bars, I met an abused and abandoned God. There, in these children, the God of the oppressed, the persecuted, and the innocent, cried for freedom and love. It is the fate of thousands of children today, a fate Jesus willingly shared to remind us of our dignity, to tell us who we really are.
That night, I was filled with anger and frustration as I worked to have those children released from prison and brought to the children’s home I had set up in Olongapo City. Today, there are an estimated 20,000 children imprisoned in the Philippines. The prisons, such as the national penitentiary of Bilibid, south of Manila, are hellholes of abuse and neglect for children, some as young as nine years.
I know, for I have been jailed myself. Life for a child in a Philippine prison is like a death sentence. Each day, untold numbers of Filipino kids get mixed up with adult prisoners in cramped police jails where they are frequently raped, tortured, tattooed, and deprived of access to legal, medical, social, and psychological assistance. This amounts to an institutionalised act of unlawful discrimination by the Philippine government against the children of the poorest of the poor.
Today, we witness the spectre of these children languishing in prisons – deprived by the state of their basic human rights – practically all over the Philippines.
The abuse persists today as young lives rot in prison, wasting away in this school of crime. No wonder the Philippines have one of the highest crime rates in South East Asia.
Filipinos are by and large a people of gentle compassion, kindness, and with a love of justice. But a history of political corruption and dictator ship has left a legacy of unjust laws, empty coffers, and a sea of pitiless political hearts. Our mission is to change as much of that as possible.
In my own life I am almost ashamed to live as I do: secure, well-fed and with all the necessities of a decent life. I am even more ashamed when I find myself complaining, thinking I am deprived. In fact we live in opulent luxury compared to the hardships endured by the children in prison or on the streets. Now I understand why Jesus told us to forget ourselves and help others. He was so angry when he saw how the poor were despised and treated as worthless outcasts, and he denounced the political and religious leaders as pious frauds, likening them to whitened sepulchres. We can never enter the kingdom of heaven, he said, unless we become as innocent as one of these children. He identified with them. He appealed to us to see him in the poor; in prison, hungry and deprived.
Children around the world are imprisoned. The authorities must answer for this and we must act now to change the system and free the children.