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Still Saving the Kids Behind Bars - Reflections by Fr. Shay Cullen

(Fr. Shay's columns are published in The Manila Times,
in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)

Several years ago, I was able to get inside several highly secured jails for the first time. I was so shocked by what I saw I couldn't sleep for nights after. The jail visits revealed children as young as ten were being held in detention with adults and many suffered degrading physical and sexual abuse, some were even being sadistically tortured. Few knew about this terrible situation as it all happened behind locked gates and prison cells. I was determined to rescue as many as possible, giving the toothbrushes and snacks and ignoring the violations of their rights was immoral. I had to act and with the help of the Juvenile Justice Network I lobbied and campaigned to end the jailing of children in conflict with the law.

Jubilee Action, a charity based in Guilford, Surrey, in the UK, headed by the charismatic founder and leader Danny Smith has been instrumental in helping us greatly to develop public awareness round the world that led to a change in the Philippine law and led to the release and rehabilitation of hundreds of children. Danny Smith got the ITV to send out a camera team led by Chris Rogers. With hidden cameras we got inside the jails and filmed the conditions and plight of these children that lay hidden for past generations. It was documented and revealed to the world.

Soon after the shocking revelations, there was an uproar in the Philippines and abroad. The Philippine Senate passed the long pending Juvenile Justice Welfare Bill two weeks later. But the congress balked. Danny Smith persuaded ITV and Chris Rogers to come again. I got them into other jails where children were stacked like chickens in a cage. The second report showed that the terrible conditions of children behind bars still prevailed. Sickness, disease, malnutrition, physical and sexual abuse. Slavery prevailed, as kids were "owned” by the cell bosses and worked for their food. This report was more powerful that the first and the “shock and awe" effect moved the Philippine Congress to finally pass the law.

Readers can view the ITV/CNN report on the Internet via youtube, "CNN kids behind bars" or visit

Hundreds have been released by compassionate judges but thousands across the county are still behind bars for trivial offenses like playing cards on the street corner. Many are abused and even tortured in degrading and severely damaging ways. A few weeks ago we found three children in a police station cell with adults.

Their eyes showed fear, docility, and hopeless submissiveness. They were in shock and traumatized. What was done to them and what they had to do to please the adult prisoners is unprintable. They were made the girlie-boys of the jam-packed cell. The people who put them there ought to be in jail themselves.

The kids were half naked, hungry, and malnourished and had scabies. They were frightened and miserably living in fear. All of the inmates were being kept locked in these cells day and night, with nowhere to sit or lie down. The children begged us to give them food and when they were released to us they broke down and cried and wailed for five minuets. All were dressed in dirty tattered rags. We produced court release papers that transferred them to our custody; it was a day of hope and the beginning of happiness for them.

Outside they were clothed and fed and they were brought to the Preda Boys Home. Here, they are free to run about play basketball, swim, go to school, take an apprenticeship for trade. They learn right for wrong, grow in spiritual values and start life over. There is no need for walls, fences, gates or guards. The vast majority stays willingly and regains their pride, self-confidence and become good students. This June 2008, twenty-four have been enrolled in high school and another fifteen are taking distance learning. These are the throwaway children of the society, lost sheep whose rights were trampled underfoot but are now found and restored to a life of goodness and dignity. Lets do all we can to help end it once and for all. END

Contact Fr. Shay Cullen at the Preda Center, Upper Kalaklan, Olongapo City, Philippines.
PREDA Information Office
PREDA Foundation, Inc.

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