RIZAL AT 150: IN VISIT TO HK PRISON, HE SAW OPPRESSION
by Bryan Anthony C. Paraiso
Human Rights activists say that incarceration in Philippine jails, no matter how brief, is in itself a death sentence, with convicts—the impoverished ones, that is—forced to live in misery and squalor. Recent statistics of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology corroborate this view—62,000 convicts occupy a mere 985 prisons nationwide.
It’s like we were still in the late 19th century, when prisons everywhere were known for their dismal and insalubrious environments, with inmates often shackled with weights on their ankles and condemned to a living death.
During his brief stay in Hong Kong in 1892, Jose Rizal accompanied his Portuguese friend, Dr. Lorenzo Marques, on a medical visit to Victoria Gaol, the city’s penitentiary. Because Marques was the prison physician, Rizal was welcomed and allowed to move freely. And like any other curious visitor, he recorded his experience in the prison.
Wrote Rizal: “We saw a crowd of prisoners in the patio—anemic, pale, dirty. Their clothes were of white canvas, solidly made, and consisting of shirt and trousers.”
“On the left side of the breast above the heart is sewed on the shirt the prisoner’s number in Arabic numerals; on the right side another piece of cloth with Chinese characters, probably his name or number in Chinese…”
“When they wear two black stripes of the width of one finger on the right shoulder—parallel stripes which fall forward following the seam of the sleeves where they are joined to the body—they are recidivists, or at least they are serving a second term.”
Rizal described the prison cells as dark, scarcely lighted by a window with closed blinds.
Many of the prisoners were Chinese, punished through a meager diet of rice and water, and consequently debilitated by diarrhea.
“We saw among them many opium smokers, noticeable for the color of their skin, their dirty teeth, in some, lack of teeth, constipation, anemic figure, deep eyes, and bony fingers,” he wrote.
Racial prejudice was rampant, as indicated by the differences between the cells occupied by Chinese and those by Europeans: “The jails of the Chinese are clean; its furnishings consisted of one long and round pole, about 10 centimeters in diameter, fixed on the floor, which served as a pillow; and one square box full of sawdust and with a shovel which served as a privy …”
“We visited various departments beside each other; I saw some Europeans. These have a narrow bed, which fold in the center like a chair, with a Chinese mat for a mattress.”
Well-behaved prisoners were transferred to workshops to learn skills in shoemaking, bookbinding and printing.
Others were engaged in tedious activities such as unraveling burlap threads to make coir mats. These prisoners were required to produce a quota of one-and-a-half pounds of burlap threads, or face punishment. The hard-labor penalties were cruelly grueling, according to Rizal. He wrote: “… Hard labor consists of walking to and [from] the interior of the cell to a leather-covered crank attached to the wall. This crank is connected to a meter with a plate whose numbers indicate what should be done before each meal.
“The room is dark. From outside can be seen the moving end of the axis; there is an arrow indicating the direction. Every prisoner has to walk back and forth 12,500 times a day and if he fails to do it, he will be punished.”
“To do this, the prisoner must remain standing in semi-darkness. We saw one, naked until the waist, doing this. The resistance weight of the crank is probably from 10 to 16 pounds. There is a book there in which are recorded the number of turns one has made and the number of days that he has to work. It is hard work and it is a pity that so much motive power is not employed in something useful.”
Hard labor included picking round shots and at intervals placing or removing them from hollows in foot-high socles, and carrying on the shoulders a bamboo pole with two heavy granite stones suspended from each end and walking around a patio for hours.
Rizal also recounted that a prisoner tried to escape by jumping from the high wall and was severely injured: “… The poor devil … had committed theft in China, was caught in Hong Kong and was … to be sent back to China. He tried to escape without knowing the topography of the place.”
“They fired at him several times without hitting him. When he jumped, he fell on his feet; he bent forward, rested on his hands, and his face hit the ground. He is suffering from fractures of the … base of the skull. At the beginning, he had a slight fever. He is 30 years old.”
Rizal left Victoria Gaol alone, yet he was visibly affected by what he had witnessed. Did he pity the condemned for the harsh punishments they were suffering? How did he regard the colonial justice system imposed by the British?
As he stepped out of the prison doors, Rizal must have reflected on French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s words: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
In all probability, Rizal felt that oppression existed in all countries under colonial rule, and this fueled his determination to strive for equality and freedom for Filipinos during his final homecoming on June 26, 1892.