By Mei Magsino, VERA Files
At the recent Prisoners' Week celebration at the Batangas provincial jail, Governor Vilma Santos-Recto bought packs of the fried crispy garlic made by inmates inside the jail.
Knowing the health benefits of garlic, the governor ate them as if she was just eating potato chips. Not contented with her initial purchase, she bought more.
That was the same reaction of other people who have tasted the provincial jail's products displayed in a booth at the recent festival and business exhibit in Lipa City. Their products were sold out before the end of the day.
The next day, the products were featured on a local television network for its superb quality and packaging.
For the last three years, inmates at the Batangas Provincial jail have been supplying three types of crispy garlic to a big catering company based in Manila. Glutinous noodles are also repacked there and sold at the local markets.
"We have two Filipino-Chinese inmates here, who I noticed to be good cooks," Col. Venus De Castro, the provincial jail warden, said.
He talked to them about the possibility of creating products that the inmates could make right inside the provincial jail.
"My fellow inmates here were always bored, because they have nothing to do here," John (not his real name), the businessman, said. "And being in the food business before, I knew the high demand for fried crispy garlic of some of the biggest catering businesses in Manila. That's when we started making our product."
John was a former businessman engaged in the food business in Manila and Rizal province when in 2007, he went to Sto. Tomas town in Batangas to fetch his friend Richard (not his real name), a tourist guide, who was then touring a group of Taiwanese tourists.
Both of them didn't know that the Taiwanese tourists were involved in running a drug laboratory in Sto. Tomas and were under the surveillance of authorities. When the combined forces of the police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) raided the facility used in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine hydrochloride, locally known as shabu, John and Richard were among those arrested.
While waiting for the court decision on their case inside the provincial jail, the two have agreed to start the fried crispy garlic venture with the warden's support.
"It is better to manufacture the crispy garlic here because not only is the labor cheaper, but we're also helping the inmates earn and be proud of themselves," Richard said.
It takes each inmate about 15-20 minutes to make crispy garlic. Each inmate is paid for peeling and slicing of the garlic per kilo.
They sell the crispy garlic to their Manila clients at P60 per pack and P400 per kilo. At the local markets, their repacked noodles sell at P70 per kilo.
It's not much, according to De Castro, but with the growing demand in the last three years, the products have helped the inmates make their time worthwhile.
"A big part of the inmate's rehabilitation also involves self- improvement, and pride at what he has accomplished," De Castro said. "We're giving them a way to fight boredom, and at the same time, restore their feeling of self-worth. They're proud of what they do here."
With the full support of the warden and the governor, the project prospered. The money they get from the sales are fully accounted for and reinvested in the business.
At the correctional facility of the jail, female inmates have formed their own Lady Inmates Cooperative that bakes and sells brownies, macaroons, and yema sweets packaged in attractive boxes that could rival those made outside the jail.
The Brownies are sold for P6 per piece, P40 per box of six, and P75 per box of 12. Macaroons are sold at P60 per box while the Yema for P5 per piece of P60 per box of 12 pieces.
De Castro still makes it a point to inspect the quality of the products before they are sent out to be sold. The quality of every product can compete with those manufactured outside prison walls.
Written at the bottom of each dessert box and garlic package are the words "Sa Kaunting Halaga, nakatulong ka" (At a very little cost, you have extended a helping hand).
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")