Classics professor takes freedom fighter role
By Carolyn Gonzales
Warren Smith, a classics professor in Foreign Languages and Literatures for 33 years, was well published and securely tenured in 1992 when he decided to take leave without pay to spend a year in Manila.
|A prison guard watches from a tower as a Filipino woman prisoner accompanies Smith across prison grounds to the exit gate. Cameras are no longer allowed on the premises.
Despite his goal to take a break from the classroom, he was put to work teaching the New Testament and Greek classes at St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary, an Episcopal and native Philippine church.
The New Mexico Episcopal Church and Northwest Deanery of the Diocese of the Rio Grande paid for Smith’s travel. He is a St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church member.
After an “amazing year,” Smith journeyed back to Manila six times. Smith had made jail visits while in Albuquerque and asked if anyone from the seminary was visiting either Manila’s New Bilibid, the men’s prison, or its Correction Institute for Women.
The women are a stabilizing factor within the Philippine prison – this is a barrier to seeking their freedom.
Smith was invited to accompany Fr. Moreno Tuguinay when he started conducting weekly church services. “The women responded to the prison ministry, picking it up quickly, singing, clapping and stamping their feet. Even when we weren’t able to go, they held services on their own. The same was not true for the men,” he said.
Smith began to know some of the women who would tell him, “We won’t be here the next time you come.”
But they were.
Separated by a language barrier, the women primarily come from Northern Philippines and speak Ilocano, a native dialect. Fortunately, Tuguinay, now retired, grew up speaking it. Known in the prison as the Baguio girls, so-called because of Northern Philippines’ largest city, most of the women are in prison for drug offenses.
“They receive life imprisonment for growing and selling marijuana. It’s a poverty issue, generally associated with trouble at home. Most Filipino women don’t work unless their husbands aren’t providing,” Smith explained.
This year, he related to his wife Anne Marie how troubled he was to see the women languish in prison. She, too, had seen the women when she visited the Philippines in 1996. She told him to do something about it. He knew the task would be daunting. On one of the 17-hour flights, Smith read the declaration form required when entering the Philippines. It read, “Death to all drug traffickers by Philippine law,”he said.
Smith told Fr. Tomas Maddela, the dean of the seminary, that he intended to petition for parole for some of the women prisoners.
“He announced to the church my intentions and it was met with claps and cheers. After the service Fr. Balanguy approached me to tell me he, too, wanted to be involved,” Smith said.
A barrier to seeking freedom for the women is that they are a stabilizing factor within the prison.
“They are hard working, do all the prison landscape. New prison arrivals are sent to them to help them adjust to life inside,” Smith said.
Recognizing the need for a lawyer, Smith found Geoffrey Andiwi, also connected with the church. Andiwi told Smith he’d work on the case, one parolee at a time.
“He reminded me that paroles are difficult because of the sensitivity of the drug issue,” Smith said.
A first step was to seek parole for someone with no attorney. “He is charging $10,000 pesos, or about $100 per person. We are reviewing the case files on the 32 Baguio women. I’ve known six of them since 1992. He’ll try to find out which two are most likely to be viewed as deserving of parole,” Smith said.
Of the original six women, four are in prison on drug charges and two are in for “illegal recruitment.” Smith explained, “In most cases, they’ve signed people up for passports and jobs overseas fraudulently.”
He said that one prisoner, Melba, the mother of four, had been recommended for executive clemency, or commutation of sentence, but it was deferred in May 2000 because it was a drug case.
Smith is particularly moved by the case of Elsie, who has been in the Correction Institute for Women for 25 years. “She was being treated for severe depression when I was there last month,” he said.
Smith has come a long way from the man who first viewed Manila as a “hell hole.” His first days there, now more than a decade ago, were filled with stomachaches and nausea and a desire to get back on the plane.
It’s a long way; too, for the Connecticut Yankee, who was Ivy League educated and spent his days in the library while everyone else was outside protesting Vietnam.
Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free…”
Although not a freedom fighter when it was cool in the 60s, Smith has taken up the call for women 8,000 miles away who have nothing to lose, and hope and freedom to gain.