By Raymund E. Narag I Published: July 29, 2020
“Bilang mayor ng selda, tungkulin ko na pangalagaan ang iyong kalagayan.” (As a cell leader, it is my duty to promote your wellbeing). In most cases, those are words that would greet a newly-arrived inmate in a Philippine jail or pison.
Upon arrival, they (inmates) would be oriented by the cell mayor of the rules and regulations, the do’s and the don’ts, and the general way of life in the jail.
Day-to-Day In Charge
Inmate leaders, locally called as nanunungkulan, help the jail and prison management in administering the day-to-day needs of the cell.
They are in charged of conflict mediation and settlement, cleanliness and order maintenance, visitor security, resource generation, and many other concerns.
If an inmate gets sick, it is the cell mayor who will provide for the medicines.
If the light malfunctions, or the water sewerage gets clogged, it is the cell mayor and his staff who will provide the first line of service delivery.
It is expected that those “little cell problems” should not be made a burden for the jail and prison authorities.
Indeed, a key and ubiquitous characteristic of detention centers, jails and prisons in the Philippines is the presence of inmate leaders.
In every cell, there is always a mayor, a vice mayor, a bastonero (disciplinarian), a kulturero (in charge of headcounting), a chief buyonero (in charge of cleanliness), and a mahinarya (in charge of night security).
Their names and positions are prominently displayed in the cell walls.
They are informally called upon by the jail wardens and prison superintendents during meetings to discuss the issues and challenges affecting their facilities.
In bigger facilities, with inmate population of more than a thousand inmates, the inmate hierarchy becomes more sophisticated, with functions such as mayor de mayores (head of mayors) develop.
They, therefore, create an informal structure that parallels the formal structure of the jail and prison bureaus.
The Mayores System
The mayores evolved by default and not by design.
In fact, the jail and prison bureaus formally disallow the formation of the mayores system.
The manuals say, “no inmate shall practice supervision over other inmates.”
Inmates are also not allowed to conduct “kangaroo courts.”
Yet, despite these provisions, jail and prison officers rely on the inmate leaders for their custodial, rehabilitation and clerical support.
This informal reliance on the mayores system emanates from the lack of personnel and resources accorded to the correctional facilities.
Jail Office to Inmates Ratio
Ideally, there should be one jail/ prison officer for every seven inmates. In reality, there are 80 to 100 inmates being supervised by a custodial officer.
In some overcrowded facilities, the ratio could be as high as 1:500.
Thus, jail and prison officers depend on the support of the inmate leaders – from headcounting, food rationing, and order maintenance – othewise, the facility operations will collapse.
Inmates actively participate in the Mayores system.
It provides an opportunity to exercise and hone their leadership skills. It creates a venue to keep them productive of their time. It constructs a social hierarchy where social status is reconstituted– being a cell mayor is prestigious. It hides the shameful label of being a “detainee.”
In the jail and prison community, inmate leaders are introduced as “the mayor of cell so and so”. The stigma of being labeled a “criminal” is thus subdued.
If given the proper guidance from the jail and prison officials, the mayores system could indeed be transformed as a mechanism for shared governance.
Managing Cell Leaders
A key mechanism is for jail and prison officials to determine merit-based criteria for determining and grooming the leaders.
Indeed, inmate leaders become fully supportive when programs are clearly established and criteria for participation are clearly articulated.
If not properly managed, however, the mayores system can mutate to self-governance, where inmates will take matters in to their own hands.
This happens when the jail and prison authorities have surrendered their mandate of governing the facilities.
That is, they participate in the corrupt practices in the facilities – drug trade and distribution, food corruption, and other moneymaking schemes.
Breakdown In the System
Indeed, unsupervised big city jails and prisons, especially the New Bilibid Prisons, have demonstrated a breakdown and abuse of the mayores system.
Thus, it all boils down to adherence to morally upright form of correctional governance.
Inmate leadership is a tool that can be maximized for jail and prison governance. It can also be tool for abuse and corruption.
For in the Philippines, inmates are detained but not contained.
(Editor’s Note: Prof. Raymund E. Narag, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department of the School of Justice and Public Safety at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale in the United States. A graduate of the UP and was a Fulbright scholar at the Michigan State U, he is interested in criminal justice administration in developing countries and conducts research in Philippine corrections and court administration.)