There is a bible verse that Karen Bordador told me about that she had come across consistently in the months prior to her release: “I am the Lord, and when it is time, I will make these things happen quickly” (Isaiah 60:22).
“When that day comes, He will do it quickly,” Karen said. “He’ll give me the freedom and I’ll finally experience the life I wanted.”
But it took a lot just for Karen to get to that light at the end of the tunnel—four years and nine months, to be exact.
Karen still remembers that day as vividly as she could. It was a Saturday afternoon in August 2016 when she was suddenly implicated in a drug-related arrest just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Her detainment was heavily publicized by news outlets and no one knew for sure what had happened to her since. Until now, that is.
“The first time it happened, I really did not like absorb it immediately kasi in my mind wala naman talaga nangyari so uuwi ako agad-agad,” she said as she recounted the events of that fateful day with When In Manila.
She believed that she would get to go home as soon as possible, but it didn’t take her long to realize that the chances of that happening were turning slim as weeks turned into months of being kept in that cramped detention cell. Despite this, Karen didn’t let her situation get the best of her and she did the one thing she knew how to do: look at it all in a positive light.
“What I thought was, if I was going to be here, eto ‘yung first mantra ko: I’m going to be like a journalist pretending I’m living the life of a prisoner and get to know the world. Parang ‘yun ang iniisip ko sa beginning. And since I always write on a diary and I would share whatever happens within that day ever since I was a kid, I was like, oh, okay, I’m gonna be like a journalist and write about everything. I did that,” she said.
“I learned about [everyone’s] cases, their situations. I learned about the oppression… I used it as a way to learn—to learn about the different world I’ve never been in.”
Then came the third month and instead of being told that she can finally be free, she was given a choice between two things: to transfer to Bicutan Jail, where she was told the high-profile convicts stayed, or to transfer to Pasig City Jail, where she will be immersed in “real jail life.” To Karen, the choice was obvious.
“I don’t want to be looked at as high-profile. I’m just a normal citizen.”
Love behind bars
When asked to describe her life in Pasig City Jail in the last four and a half years, Karen surprisingly said nothing but good things. She spoke about how cramped and warm and dirty her dorm room, which she shared with around 50 to 80 other women, was as well as her struggle of having to get used to sleeping on a mattress the size of a small yoga mat on her bunk bed that was so close to the concrete ceiling—but mostly, she spoke about the people she met, live with, and befriended like family.
“I’m the type of person who loves to wonder and to get to know whatever and wherever I’m at so I kept a positive attitude,” she shared. “I really tried to befriend people kasi mahirap talagang maging loner. You really need to have allies.”
Karen quickly learned that adapting to this community of Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) wasn’t going to be as difficult as she initially expected. Kindness, she would find, would always be paid back tenfold among people who rely on compassion to earn their freedom.
“The first night when I felt na ‘okay, I can really deal with this,’ is when I got a massage,” she recalled. “The girls inside, they’re very generous in their skills. We all know that we’re in such a really bad situation. So, people are more generous in giving what they have, if not in cash [then] in kind.”
She continued: “I got a massage that night and sabi ng massage therapist ko, ‘Bahala ka na, ikaw na.’ I’m like, that’s nice, they don’t dictate on you what they should get. It’s all with love. So, I learned that on the first night that they do things with love.”
Learn what you can, give what you must
“If I was gonna be there, I’m gonna take it as like college,” Karen joked as she opened up on the many recreational and educational activities she did during her stay in prison. “Sabi ko ‘Lord, please, pwede bang six-month course lang ‘tong college stay ko?’ ‘Di pa ‘rin, naging masterals eh!”
She decidedly joined all the classes she could take, from learning how to make banana chips to other similar skills training provided by the TESDA, and proudly racked up a number of certificates by completing them. “I don’t know how many certificates I’ve gotten already for joining classes there. But I took it all seriously.”
She also participated in so-called “service providers” which were spiritual events for inmates to elevate themselves and rediscover their faith in God.
Not-so-surprisingly, she ended up being her cell’s “mayora” as well. The Mayora, as she explained, took on the role of coordinator between PDLs and the higher officers and acted as the leader of all the female inmates in her ward.
Utilizing her business and events background, Karen organized many small businesses in prison to raise funds for her other projects that included celebrating special occasions like birthdays and graduations and having the entire cell beautified and free of rats and cockroaches! Most importantly, she encouraged illiterate inmates to learn how to read and write.
“I just tried my best to impart whatever I had or whatever skills I knew to contribute inside kasi ano namang magagawa mo ‘di ba? If you’re gonna be in a place you might as well do good inside and hopefully you can share a part of yourself. At the same time, I learned din about their life, like why they’re in that situation and why they can’t seem to get out of it,” she shared.
Of course, it wasn’t easy being the leader of people who each had their own way of thinking, their own personality, and their own background. But as she learned on her first days of living with them, all it takes is a little empathy and patience and a whole lot of unwavering love.
“Outside, we mostly interact with people that we need, especially in our industry. I have friends, but then you can’t deny that we interact with those that are higher than us or more elevated than us or those we feel we can benefit from. But inside, you cannot benefit from anyone,” she explained. “So I really learned to simply love and accept even those na talagang sobrang outcasts. Because you just never know. The world is so round, you know—you can be up you can be down. Either way, we’re in this together.”
“It doesn’t matter if meron ka or wala, we’re all together. So parang ngayon, hindi na ako pumipili ng tao. Like, it doesn’t matter to me what your background is. I understand we’re all going through something and that’s what makes us one person. You know?” she added.
“I understand, and I know you understand me too. I’m not going to choose you. We’ve chosen each other. Whatever comes in my life, there’s a meaning, so I’ll let them in.”
A mother’s sacrifice
“So, you could say that the camaraderie is what gave you the strength through this difficult period of your life?” I asked her.
“Yeah, but I thank my mom specifically,” Karen answered. “She has not abandoned me. She gave me the same dedication and love from the very beginning.”
To say that her mom helped her throughout her stay in prison would be an understatement in the grand scheme of things. Since day one, Karen’s mom has never left her side and did much to provide Karen the care and support she needed. And that love spread all around, touching the lives of hundreds of strangers.
Karen shared how her mom would bring in nuns and priests from Alagad Ni Maria and Bishop Bacani to pray over them all, and once got Cardinal Tagle to celebrate mass. Her generosity knew no bounds, whether it’s donating food and essentials to everyone in the male and female dorms or assisting other prisoners with getting in touch with their families.
“People are so touched, like it’s a miracle na we’re here getting all these blessings from God and we will only be able to get that inside.”
She added: “The essential people in my life really, really showed, you know, loyalty till the very end.”
Light at the end of the tunnel
“When that day comes, He will do it quickly. He’ll give me the freedom and I’ll finally experience the life I wanted,” Karen said with hope and relief in her voice. “Mine was a huge miracle.”
After nearly five years of pleading her innocence, she finally got the justice she deserved when her case was officially acquitted in June 2021.
Partly the reason why her case took this long to reach a verdict was the frequent cancellations of hearings in court which slowed down the process significantly. The pandemic delayed things even further and, on top of that, her case had to be passed on to a new judge following the untimely death of the one who was originally hearing her case.
But Karen kept her faith that she will soon see the light at the end of the tunnel. And she did—the moment the CCTV footage of that dreaded day was finally shown.
“When the CCTV was shown, my heart was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Lord, I hope the judge the new judge sees this and realizes na you can’t let us let me stay inside because really I’m an innocent person’,” she shared. “And I felt that, I felt the judge understood and then wanted me to sit on the stand na.”
“Sa day na ‘yun talaga I was so, so prepared. I know what happened exactly that day. I write this down all the time! I really wanted to prove to the court that I don’t deserve to be here, I should be home.”
Having to show that vital piece of evidence truly sparked a fire within her. There was no doubt in her mind that she would be able to come home this year. She started working out every day, had her things sent home one by one, and just welcomed each new day with a renewed spirit, telling nobody—not even her best friends and the other prisoners—that she was so close to getting her freedom.
“I would have a bible na I would look at messages from Him and it would always tell me sa bible na He’s preparing for great things for me after the rain. After the darkness, there’s gonna be a lot of light. So I was happily, quietly going through the days ‘til that day arrived.”
On that day she would finally hear the judge’s verdict, Karen recalled having to fight for it to push through. She said that they were going to cancel for the sole reason that there was no internet in the male dorm which meant that the female dorm wouldn’t have access to it either. She had to plead with officials to let her connect to their Wi-Fi so that the hearing could proceed as planned.
Karen still remembered the exact words her judge had said the moment she got on the video call, too. “When I was there, the judge said, ‘I don’t want any innocent person still staying in jail for any second longer, so let’s promulgate kahit mag-isa lang siya.’”
And she swears, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room the moment she heard the word: “Acquitted.”
She was told she was going home that same day due to her not being their target and that she evidently had nothing to do with the operation she had been accused of being part of. Her release had been a big deal among her cellmates. “Syempre, my case, na-media. It was such a huge fiasco, so napakalaking bagay na nakalaya ako especially na I’m one of those na sobrang tagal nang nasa jail, nearly five years.”
“Nung inannounce na nalaya ako, talagang nabuhayan kasi it can happen to them too. My freedom is to them [also] their freedom.”
In the middle of the interview, Karen paused for a while to settle down her two-month-old rabbit which had been chewing on something on her bedroom floor.
“Her name is Liberty,” she remarked with a smile.
Her rabbit was among the many pets she’s gotten ever since she arrived home—the others being birds, turtles, and fish. Her pets are what have kept her company these past few weeks while she lives with her parents and adjusts to the “new normal.”
“I do plan on returning,” she admitted when asked about what she planned to do moving forward. “A lot of people are offering me to get back on track. A lot of people are telling me to write a book [even.] I’m brewing a lot of things. I’m definitely gonna vlog and blog, definitely; that’s already in the works. And I have projects that are being offered to me. But I just want a stable beginning na hindi ako windang. I just want to be super organized before I super commit to something new.”
One thing’s for certain, she said, is that whatever she hopes to do next will be aimed towards uplifting the lives of those who need it the most.
“I’ve already written down all my things to do like it adds up every year, all my hopes and dreams and a lot of them contribute not just for myself — because before talaga I did a lot of things just for myself — this one, I hope na whatever work I have, I can give others work as well [and] can contribute to the elevation of others.”
She continued: “I don’t want a selfish career; I just want to do things that are purposeful and beneficial to the community or to people na who should be cared for. That’s my mantra now.”
Listening to her story in its entirety for nearly an hour, I couldn’t help but be in awe by how she kept her positivity and zest for life intact through all the pain and hardship in the last five years. But I knew why—it’s all thanks to the unconditional love of family, her strengthened relationship with God, and the faith that, one day, the truth will set her free.
Her story of hope will one day change lives. Perhaps it already did.
“For those people who are in a dark era in their life know that it’s temporary. It can be years—not even days, not even months, it could be long years. It could be a sickness, it could be depression, it could be prison… but know that it’s going to end. And they have to treasure what’s important, and that’s family.”
“I believe every single person will experience a dark moment in their life and their support system will be their family. So now pa lang, be close to them ‘cause they will be there for you until the very end,” she continued. “And also, you will have a very strong connection to God, so be grateful for what you have. I think people aren’t grateful kasi kaya they are imprisoned in their minds. They don’t see what’s in front of them, they don’t acknowledge how much it’s helped them, how much love is given to them. So be grateful and acknowledge all the blessings that they have and know that all challenges given to you are meant to only make you become better.”
“You’re gonna go through a lot of things in order for you to prepare for the next steps of your life, so know na this is just life. It’s not being done to you to hurt you, but it’s always to make you stronger. Accept everything that happens to you, don’t act like a victim, don’t act like the world is against you. It’s doing it for you so you can elevate yourself and become whoever God wants you to be,” she ended.
And it’s clear what Karen turned out to be: Brave. Empowered. FREE.
Know more about her story in her vlog below:
Stay updated with Karen Bordador through the following social media pages:
Do you have a story for the WhenInManila.com Team? Email us at email@example.com or send us a direct message at WhenInManila.com Facebook Page. Interact with the team and join the WhenInManila.com Community at WIM Squad! We also share our stories on Viber, join us!