Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Inside Bilibid Prison, sports means life. And hope.

Informal poll taken inside the New Bilibid Prison (36 respondents): Fave PBA team - Ginebra; Fave NBA team - Golden State Warriors; Prettiest Filipinas (tied) Pia Wurtzbach and Marian Rivera. 
Marlon Cabullon serves. Tennis at the Maximum Tennis Club inside the New Bilibid prison in Muntinlupa.
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Inside Bilibid, sports means life. And hope.
by rick olivares
With Marlon

It’s rather unusual that Cebu native Marlon Cabullon loves tennis more than basketball. The Queen City of the south has produced many a national basketball player including current PBA standout June Mar Fajardo and many other stars in sports like football and track and field. Tennis, however, held serve in Marlon’s heart. 

Marlon grew up watching German great Boris Becker in the 1980s, and on the tennis court, imitated his one-handed backhand and diving volleys. “Si Becker… grabe,” Cabullon racks his head for those memories of a simpler time. “Patay kung patay yung laro.” 

(“Becker… was something else. He played like there’s no tomorrow.”)

"Kung maglaro ako noon mula umaga hanggang hapon,” added Marlon of his love for tennis. (I would play from sunrise to sundown.)

Some 30 years after Becker’s heyday and Cabullon’s youth, the Cebuano, now older with his face lined because of age and stress and his skin bronzed from countless hours under the big bad hot sun, is still playing tennis. From morning up to sunset. 

Now he has all the time to play as he is currently incarcerated at the maximum security compound of the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa since 2007. While he isn’t in for reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment, he could be in here for anywhere between 12 -20 years for a drug offense that he doesn’t disclose the details yet admits “was a big mistake."

Suffice to say that he is moving forward from a mistake that he is paying for. The past nine years in jail have left him with many a day and night to ruminate about his poor choices and how the people you love pay for acts of stupidity.

“Nandito ako mulang umaga hanggang hapon,” emphasized New Bilibid’s tennis champion who has won many a prison tournament. “Dito sa tennis court, para ako nasa Cebu ulit. Nakakalimutan ko ang lahat. Pagbalik sa selda, napapaisip ako. Kung wala kaming sports program dito sa Bilibid ay ewan ko na kung saan ako pupulutin. Hindi ako humihingi ng simpatiya; nagkamali ako at ako’y nagbabayad.”

(I’m normally here from morning until night. Here on the tennis court, it is as if I am back in Cebu. I forget everything that has happened. For when I get back to my jail cell, I think a lot. Were it not for this sports program, I do not know what will happen to us. I am not asking for sympathy; I made a mistake and now I am paying for it.”)

Three years ago, under the auspices of the Philippine Sports Commission’s Jolly Gomez, a jail outreach program was established called, Sports and Recreational Office or SARO for short. While sports has always been a part of prison life, especially basketball, Gomez enhanced the program by organizing tennis, chess, and billiards tournaments with proper prizes while donating sports equipment. Under SARO, tennis pros like PJ Tierro and Johnny Arcilla have come over to play in doubles competition with members of the Muntinlupa Tennis Club. 

In fact, there will be an upcoming billiards tournament that will involve Efren “Bata” Reyes and Django Bustamante where the winners of the Bilibid-wide tournament will get to play the two world-class cue artists. 

Anthony Omega, New Bilibid’s Director of SARO, says the program is not only a huge hit with the 15,000-plus inmates of the prison but has helped boost morale while teaching them a lot of values. “Sa basketball,” explained Omega. “May banggaan diyan at hindi maaiwasan ang away. Walang pinagkaiba yan sa laro sa labas. Pero sa tennis, chess, badminton, at sa billiards malaking bagay yung sportsmanship lalo na kapag naglalaban yung mga iba’t ibang mga pangkat. Makita mo nagkakamayan pagkatapos ng laro. Mabuting leksyon yan. Yung iba na hindi nakakulong for life, pagdating ng panahon, ay ibababa sila sa minimum security hangga’t makalabas sila. Nakakatulong din ito sa rehabilitation ng mga inmates. Hopefully, yung lessons na nakuha nila from SARO and yung Alternative Learning System (where inmates can enrol in classes for basic English, the arts, basic computer, automotive mechanics, building construction, practical electricity, tailoring, and radio and television mechanics among others), ay makakatulong sa kanila pagnakalaya na sila.”

(“In basketball, you cannot avoid the physicality that sometimes leads to fights. There is nothing different from the way the game is played outside Bilibid. However, for tennis, chess, badminton, and billiards, they inculcate sportsmanship and that is huge here inside. You see players from the different gangs shaking hands after a match and that promotes harmony. These are good lessons. Not everyone is in here for life so for those with a chance to be down-graded into medium security with hopes of gaining a release, this will help. Hopefully, aside from SARO and the Alternative Learning System, this will help them in the next stage of their lives.)

With Max Delmo

For others like Max Delmo who is in Munti for life, sports is his way of coping with his lot. He’s in for taking part in a massacre and has been in jail since 1997. He was supposed to face the death penalty but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. 

Delmo understands the severity of his crime and like Marlon, doesn’t ask for sympathy or forgiveness. “Kapag nandito ka na sa loob, doon mo lang malalaman kung ano yung tunay na mahalaga sa buhay mo — pamilya mo, Diyos, at trabaho. Mga tao tulad ko? Hindi ko alam kung makakalaya ako pero dito subukan ko na lang maging maayos na tao.”

(“It’s only when you’re inside prison when you realized what a mess you’ve made of your life. You realize what is essential to your life — family, God, and work. As for people like me who will probably never know freedome? All I can do it try to live the end of my days as a good person.”)

Delmo, is a Laguna native who is also the president of the Maximum Tennis Club (that was established in June of 1997 when jailed former congressman Romeo Jalosjos had the tennis court built in the compound of the Batang City Jail, one of the 12 gangs inside the prison), is grateful for tennis. It occupies his days and helps fight off stress and despair.

Today, the MTC has over 500 members who pay their membership dues (of Php150 a month that pays for the maintenance of the court and for the scorekeeper). “The payment teaches everyone responsibility,” points out Omega. 

Added Gomez, “More than anything, it gives them self-worth that they can be good at something and it builds their self-esteem.” 

On April 19, the 18th Anniversary tournament of the MTC will kick off between membership that has been divided into two teams — Team Duterte and Team Binay.

Shocked that one of the teams is named after a presidential aspirant who made a name for himself for extra-judicial killings of criminals, I inquire at the strangeness of the name.

One inmate who goes by the name of Boy (not his real name) explained it, “Napakasama ng krimen sa labas. Parang weird sabihin yan dahil mga kriminal kaming lahat dito. Pero pagkatapos mo pagisipan lahat ng mga sala mo, lahat ng mali mo, ay gusto mo magbago. Halos kaming lahat ay may pamilya sa labas. Natatakot din kami may mangyari sa mga pamilya namin. Kaya gusto rin namin gawan ng paraan ni Rody Duterte.”

(“The peace and order situation outside is really bad. It sounds weird especially since all of us here are convicts. But after you have ruminated on your mistakes and lot in life, you want to change for the better. Almost all of us have families outside and you fear for their safety. We hope that Rody Duterte can do something about it.”)

It’s a supreme and ironic statement at once. But it does show the dichotomy of life inside.

By 12 noon, after a sumptuous dinner of bangus and sinigang na baboy with the MTC, the PSC Commissioner and I prepare to leave. “Aalis na kami,” I say. Some of the inmates accompany us all the way to the gate but only up to a certain part where they are strictly forbidden to enter or loiter. 

(“We’re leaving.”)

They know they are at fault and realize that hindsight is 20/20. They see the gates open and before they shut close, they turned and walked back to their side of the prison. Hardened, jaded, there are somethings that people just do not want to see. Because that walk to freedom is a price they still have to pay for. Maybe for the rest of their lives.

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