The tough of job of change

The tough job of change (July 3, 2003)

The View From Taft, Business World

The hottest news last week was the revelation that shabu was being manufactured in a laboratory right inside the New Bilibid Prisons (NBP). After the usual public outcry, fuelled largely by sensationalized reporting, it came to light that there was no such laboratory but rather, an inmate who knew how to concoct the illegal stuff with a makeshift set of tools found inside the prison. When newly appointed Director of Corrections Santiago Dionisio was interviewed on radio, he was asked the obvious questions: How could this happen right under the nose of the jail guards? Whose heads will roll? Shouldn’t we fire all the guards? The superiors? The Director himself?

Director Dionisio calmly explained that there were, indeed, major problems inside the maximum-security facility. Aside from the reported presence of shabu, he enumerated problems in procedures, physical structures and discipline. With respect to shabu, he emphasized that the problem had to be dealt with collaboratively by everyone concerned, because the internal prison community had developed a code of silence around the problem. In other words, getting anyone to come forward to help punish the culprits had become very difficult indeed.

The frustration of the radio broadcasters at Director Santiago’s seeming resignation to the problem was obvious. This man was the head of the unit in charge of prisons, and here he was, so calm and matter-of-fact about how “difficult“ the problem was. Worse, he was even asking for help from other units outside his Bureau. Santiago’s attitude reportedly made Senator Francisco Pangilinan comment, "When the Director himself of the NBP admits that there is a thriving drug trade in Bilibid and he seems to sound resigned to it, we know that the drug problem is truly serious. We should immediately inquire into this. The attitude of our prison officials is troubling."

It’s easy to appreciate the frustration of the broadcasters and the Senator. After all, why should this problem be so difficult? The people involved are convicted criminals. They’re also in jail and are not going anywhere. Surely, if we can’t deal with the problem inside the NBP, with a community of only around 10,000 people, can we hope to deal with it in society at large?

These are valid questions and deserve to be answered. In fact, the questions apply to any person charged with effecting major change in a corrupt organization or community where great financial interest is involved. There are three main difficulties in addressing the NBP situation and similar situations.

People are part of webs of relationships. People who are involved in questionable acts have friendship, blood or marriage relations with others who are not involved. The people inside the NBP are, by definition, a community. Because members of a community rely on each other, they begin to support each other in many meaningful ways and become dependent on each other. Because of this interdependency, those who are not involved in the wrongful acts unwittingly support the culprits, first, by looking away and, soon after, actually covering up. What Director Santiago called a “code of silence” is a natural result when people live in close communities.

People fear for their lives. Our justice system requires evidence and witnesses to prosecute cases. This is called due process. However, in criminal conspiracies where money is involved, the conspirators have every incentive to make sure that witnesses do not become a problem. This is achieved through threats, intimidation and, on occasion, actual bodily harm or murder. So a reform-oriented leader will have major problems in making witnesses come forward. It isn’t that these witnesses are unethical. There is no compelling ethical principle that requires a person to commit suicide to right a wrong. People don’t want to die. This is only rational.

Leaders and reforms come and go, but the people stay behind. Cries for reform are common after an expose. Under the glare of media attention, persons in charge are pressured to do things quickly, and they often do. But ordinary people have seen this all before. They just brace themselves and wait for the winds of reform to blow over. And sure enough, as soon as the next expose hits the airwaves, or when the leader gets promoted or replaced, the reform effort loses steam, and everything returns to normal. Pity those who helped the reform, because they are often the victims of the backlash.

In short, curtailing criminal activity is difficult, because it is a social problem that involves the lives of even very honest people. To draw a medical analogy, a surgeon who opens up a cancer patient to take out a tumor is very careful when he or she cuts out the malignant tissue, because it is actually connected to the healthy tissue around it. In fact, the malignant tissue often feeds on the healthy tissue. A careless surgical operation can result in a removed tumor and, unfortunately, a very dead patient.

So, many who have heard of the NBP problem feel that the simple solution is to dismiss everyone even remotely close to the situation. They must have been negligent, after all. Surely they don’t deserve due process. In the national scene, after the estimate of more than three million drug users was announced, the call for urgent and so-called “simple” solutions included summary executions of suspected drug pushers.

But where will such solutions leave us? Stripped of the right to due process and driven by the logic of hate and misguided retribution, we can end up a country not worth living in.

What are the alternatives? We need to look at approaches that target the root of the drug problem, which is the breakdown of human dignity, families and communities. We must galvanize communities, yes, even the NBP community, around a common vision of dignified existence characterized by mutual concern. Such communities would be extremely inhospitable to drugs.

Mayor Jesse Robredo and the Dangerous Drugs Board of Naga City campaigned against drugs in their local communities by going house to house to ask homeowners to support the campaign for a drug-free community. Families symbolize their support through prominent stickers displayed outside their homes. One housewife said, "The stickers will remind each resident of his responsibility to keep his children and neighbors away from drugs."

In closing, I applaud Director Dionisio’s approach to the NBP situation. I do not think he is resigned to the myriad problems at the NBP. In fact, he clearly states his commitment to addressing them. He, however, realizes that these can be solved, not through rash actions, but only through collaborative, focused and continuous efforts that also address the needs of the people within the NBP. I wish we had more like him who can face up to the tough job of change.