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Would you send children to jail?

Philippine Senate is set to vote on lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12 years

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Would you send children to jail?

In many cases, young children arrested in the Philippines for misdemeanors are placed in crowded jail cells. (Photo by Vincent Go)

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We entered the so-called Bahay Pagasa, or House of Hope. It turned out to be a "jail" for children. We were bringing food to share with the young people. About 25 young girls were crowded into a room. There was no air-conditioning, or electric fans either. Rancid body smells pervaded the room in the tropical heat.

There was no escape. The children were looked upon as youth offenders, seen and treated as criminals by Philippine authorities. There was a water shortage. One of the children we rescued from the jail cell told us later that they were only allowed to wash twice a week. 

The boys were taken out of their cells and taken into an open space to receive the food we brought. The staff were embarrassed that we saw the children crammed behind bars, without beds and without furniture. The staff could do little to change the situation. 

These places are lock-up internment blocks offering not much hope for the detained youth who are caged like animals. In one cell I saw a very young child crying. I asked why he was in a cell with older boys. He was about ten years old. He was detained like a criminal with 30 or so boys 16 to 18 years old. The child was terrified. But nobody wanted to challenge the situation.

The levels of aggression, frustration, anger and violence are high among the boys and girls in the confined spaces. There is no outlet for them. No exercise and only little entertainment. What might happen to the small boy in the dark at night where sex abuse is common is horrific. Small boys rescued from places like these tell us of rape, sexual abuse, punishment, bullying and beatings.

Those over 15 years of age have court cases usually for petty misdemeanors, like sniffing industrial glue from a plastic bag. Others are in for drug abuse. They are lucky to be still alive. It’s better than being shot dead and a victim of the iron-fisted government crackdown on narcotics. 

But minors under 15 must not be charged with a crime and should not be detained in jail cells and never with older boys or girls. It’s a violation of children's rights. The situation is the result of corrupt governance ruled by dynastic families and clans. The laws they make favor their interests and businesses and those of their children. 

We rescued John-Jo, 14 years old, from the youth detention center. He told us he was arrested for violation of the curfew hours. But there are no government homes for small street children who live on the street and have no place to go. They sleep in doorways, under trees, or in the back of parked vehicles.

They are the throwaway children, unwanted and abused, rejected human flotsam of society. They run to the streets when they are beaten at home, rejected and scolded by their parents. There is little food, comfort, or love for them in their families. They seek a better life with other children in similar circumstances. 

Before taking John-Jo to our Home for Boys, we sought out his parents. We drove to a remote part of the city, walked along narrow alleys and found his father and elder brother living in a small box-sized shack with space for only two people to stand in. They were watching a small television.

John-Jo’s father asked why his boy had been arrested. We explained that we were taking him out of jail to a better place where he could go to school. The father understood and embraced his son.

Later this year, the Philippine Senate is set to vote on lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12 years old. The proposal will put many more children in detention centers where they will likely be beaten and abused. It will "criminalize" children and will be the start of their descent into ignorance and ignominy.

Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse. 

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