A few years ago, during a heritage tour to the Far Eastern University (proudly a UNESCO-awarded campus), we were taken to the basketball court which was not at ground level, but on the 5th floor. From that vantage point, I caught sight of the fabled Old Bilibid, now an endangered relic, no thanks to the Departments of Health Secretary.
A unique 19th century structure, the Old Bilibid Prison, was established in 1847 by virtue of the Revised Administrative Code. It was formally opened by a Royal Decree of 25 June 1865, when Jose Rizal was all of four years old. During Spanish colonial times, it was called Carcel y Presidio Correccional (Correctional Jail and Military Prison), with two sections, the Carcel and the Presidio. Old Bilibid stands on a rectangular piece of land carved out of the former Hacienda de Mayhalique, in the heart of Santa Cruz, Manila.
What is so significant about the Old Bilibid? In my opinion, it is a place we should revere because many Filipino revolutionaries were either imprisoned there before exile, or executed during the Spanish and American colonial times. General Macario Sakay, the last to surrender, was imprisoned and hanged there together with Col. Lucio de Vega, on 13 September 1907. There is a list of names I am reserving for another occasion. The National Historical Commission should know what to do.
From the architectural point of view, the Old Bilibid should be declared an important cultural properly, at the very least, so it will be protected, in accordance with existing laws, from profit-oriented, mindless demolition. It should not go the way of the Army Navy Club, the Meisic, and the Jai Alai to name only a few victims of the wrecker’s ball. Like it or not, the Old Bilibid now smothered with urban blight is an outstanding example of the Panopticon, that innovative design for prisons introduced in the 18th century.
A design of Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon prison was designed to reduce the price of management and increase efficiency. The panopticon-required fewer staff members because the number of goalers, or jailers and watchmen, could be reduced to the minimum. Bentham’s design allowed a single guard to observe all the prisoners in their cells who, in turn, could not tell when the guards were looking. In fact, the prisoners are made to feel that they are always being watched.
Unbelievable as it may sound, criminality rose during the American colonial regime, so Commonwealth Act No. 67 was enacted in 1936; it stipulated the construction of the New Bilibid Prison on 551 hectares in Muntinlupa, then a very remote area.In 1940, the prisoners’ equipment and facilities were transferred to the new prison and the old facility became known as Manila City Jail.
Before catching a glimpse of Manila’s Old Bilibid from the FEU heritage campus, I had entered another panopticon structure in Mexico City, the Palacio de Lecumberri, with the menacing nickname The Black Palace. Of a later vintage than Old Bilibid, 1900, the Palacio de Lecumberri was also a former prison in the north eastern fringe of Mexico City. President Porifiro Diaz inaugurated it in 1900 when the old man was grasping his 7th term as head of state. Lecumberri was decommissioned as a prison in 1976 and turned over to the country’s National Archive in 1980. The National Archive is one of the oldest historical archives in the Americas.
Interestingly, the architect of Lecumberri, Miguel S. Macedo, was imprisoned there for several months during the Mexican Revolution. The majority of the early inmates were Mexican intellectuals and politicians Pres. Porfirio Díaz considered a threat to his dictatorshsip. In 1913, his political rivals, Francisco I. Madero and José María Pino Suárez, elected president and vice-president, respectively, were killed, mysteriously, en route to The Black Palace. Throughout Lecumberri’s 76 years as a prison, only two people escaped alive, the legendary Pancho Villa in 1912, and, much later, Dwight Worker, an American cocaine smuggler who dressed as a woman to escape.
The Mexican government seriously enforces its laws that protect heritage; that is why the Black Palace of Lecumberri was given adaptive re-use as the national archives in 1976, before the itchy fingers of real estate developers could demolish the complex . I spent a few weeks there researching about Mexican political prisoners during Spanish colonial times exiled to the ends of the earth, the Capitanía General de Filipinas.
I hope we don’t lose yet another relic of the past, the Old Bilibid and the Dr. Jose Fabella, its hospital. Both are relics and very important cultural properties.