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Inmates rediscover joy, faith through guitar lessons

Inmates rediscover joy, faith through guitar lessons

Some 15 inmates joined the first batch of guitar lessons offered by Fr. Ro Atilano, SJ at the New Bilibid Prisons. JESCOM

By CBCP News

May 9, 2018


After winning the top prize at a guitar class recital, Alex (not his real name), tearfully said in Filipino, “I thank God not only because I now know how to play the guitar, but also I see now that there are still a lot of good things that I can do and discover about myself.”

Alex was part of the first-ever guitar recital class at the Medium Security Compound in the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa. Having been incarcerated for attempted homicide, he had spent 2 years in the city jail before being sent to the national penitentiary where Fr. Ro Atilano, SJ, associate director of the Philippine Jesuit Prison Service, met him. Alex is 23-years old.

Immediately after being ordained to the priesthood, Atilano was sent to the New Bilibid Prisons to minister to the sacramental needs of the inmates through the Philippine Jesuit Prison Service. Currently, there are more than 25,800 inmates distributed in four major prison camps in the reservation. This number excludes some 2,800 women who are imprisoned in the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong. “Imagine how the Bureau of Corrections manages to feed all of them on a daily basis, not to mention the provision of other basic human needs,” said the priest.

8-week guitar workshop

The young Jesuit recounts how the inspiration to teach the inmates music came to him. “After celebrating my first Mass inside the prison camp, I asked myself what else could I give and do for my Mass-goers. The first thing that came to my mind was music,” he shared. It was at this very moment that he decided to teach the inmates how to play the guitar.

After leaving the camp, Atilano immediately posted a request for guitar donations on his Facebook account, saying: “I started a guitar class inside the prisons and I need your old guitars to bring hope, joy, and perhaps even conversion to the inmates. PM me if you are willing to let go of your old guitar and let your guitar be a real guitar.”

After the social media post, the priest received more than a dozen guitars from friends and with permission from the NBP, he began a 8-week guitar class program. Fifteen inmates, who had never held a guitar before, joined the class. “…During the recital, each one of them played with confidence and gratitude in his heart. Alex turned out to be the best player. He cried after his performance. I could almost see in his face how his dignity was restored,” shared Atilano. More inmates would join the second and third batches of the classes.

More than just inspiring creativity, the priest said the guitar lessons seems to have helped foster the inmates’ self-control and emotional stability. This was made evident when a couple of months ago all the inmates in the camp were locked-down in their cells for five days because of a brawl between two groups. Masses, sports, classes were cancelled during those days.

“When finally the inmates were allowed to resume their daily activities and I was able to enter the camp again, one of my inmate students ran to me and said, “It is good that a lot of us know how to play the guitar now, so we were able to play and to pray. It kept our heads cool,” said Atilano.

Faith, joy, hope

The guitar lessons, he believes, are reintroducing the inmates to hope, joy, and faith.

Alex was eventually released a few months later under the parole program. Before he left prison, he approached Atilano and asked to be baptized.

“If music is indeed the language of the soul, perhaps, music is the language of God as well. I never thought that a simple guitar class could bring hope, joy, and even conversion to the inmates,” said Atilano.