Last year I was living in the Philippines as a Catholic seminarian and fell in love with the Filipino culture.
As part of my pastoral experience at the seminary, I visited a prison and was confronted with the harrowing reality of overcrowding and under-resourcing in the prison system.
At the prison, we had mass with the inmates, and then had the opportunity to sit and talk with some of them. What I found so confronting was not only the conditions they lived in but their overwhelming hospitality and humanity inspite of such conditions - they were so generous with what little they had. For example, inmates happily gave up their seats to us, gifted us souvenirs, and shared their painful stories.
How could these people, who were to become so familiar to me, and of whom I became so fond, be subjected to such inhumane conditions?
Their plight had such an impact on me that I decided to returned to New Zealand to study international human-rights law, focusing specifically on the external regulation of the treatment of prisoners in the Philippines.
In October this year, with help from an Asia New Zealand Foundation postgraduate research grant, I returned to the Philippines, visiting Manila and Davao to undertake a component of localised academic research towards my Master's thesis.
The prison that I visited last year as a seminarian was built for 600 people and then held over 2000. Upon revisiting this year, I found that it now holds over 3000.
The effect of this further increase in overcrowding is palpable. The pungent and repugnant smell is overpowering. The suffering gaze of those without the energy to stand up, or even sit up, is penetrating.
This experience stirs up a mix of emotions. Of course, it was nice to see the prisoners I had met before; however, it was awful to see the further deterioration of conditions in this prison, and similar conditions in other prisons I visited.
At the same time, it was also incredibly inspiring and energising to meet the people working tirelessly in the human rights and prison space across the Philippines.
In the course of my fieldwork, I learnt of initiatives to train prisoners in basic criminal procedure and decongest the prisons through self-expedition of cases.
I learnt of efforts to offer practical and academic education in the prisons. I learnt also of restorative justice programmes that exist in the Philippines justice system and in the wider Filipino community. What I learnt from all of this fundamentally challenged the (external) starting point of my thesis.
My research suggests that international human rights mechanisms are of limited value if they do not actually engender a commitment to human rights. My thesis proposes a restorative justice approach to regulation, so as to encourage such commitment within a relational context.
One of the obvious observations is that a regulatory response must be less tolerant of human rights abuses in Philippine prisons. However, such abuses are perpetuated by a system, rather than individuals, and constructive regulatory engagement must better grasp this. Such an understanding requires more sustained engagement, which builds capacity and provides necessary resources, but respects and gives effect to sovereignty and cultural autonomy.
During my most recent visit, I was lucky enough to meet with Dr Manuel Co, administrator of parole and probation in the Department of Justice.
Dr Co developed and implemented a therapeutic, community-based restorative justice programme for people on parole and probation, aimed at genuine rehabilitation and reintegration into society. This programme incorporates the indigenous practices of the Ifugao and Manobo people and thus carries particular cultural credibility.
I was unable to meet with some people I hoped to, including politicians I would have liked to interview. But other meetings were completely fortuitous, such as a taxi driver in Manila who happened to be an ex-inmate. He was keen to share his story and agreed to be interviewed.
For me, this trip to the Philippines has opened doors, shed light, and forged relationships, which gives me a greater sense of both direction and clarity in pursuit of global justice. I intend to publish my thesis, and develop partnerships in pursuing justice both at home in New Zealand and abroad.