IBP calls for probe into Philippine prison conditions, following COVID-19 deaths of high profile inmates
The first COVID-19 confirmed case in the national penitentiary passed away in April.
The STAR/Michael Varcas, file
IBP calls for probe into Philippine prison conditions, following COVID-19 deaths of high profile inmates
Kristine Joy Patag (Philstar.com) - July 21, 2020 - 12:08pm

MANILA, Philippines — The Integrated Bar of the Philippines on Tuesday urged a full investigation into conditions in Philippine prisons, following the deaths of high-profile inmates at the New Bilibid Prison due to COVID-19.

“We support a thorough investigation of the many reported anomalies in our prisons, including the latest questioned deaths of high profile inmates due to COVID-19,” IBP national president Domingo Egon Cayosa said in a statement.

The president of the national organization of Philippine lawyers stressed that they demand accountability beyond investigations.

Cayosa also said: “It may be timely to check whether or not our prisons comply with the [United Nations] Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners and adequately achieves the objectives of deterrence, restraint, reformation, retribution and restoration.”

Poor conditions and overcrowding have long plagued Philippine jail and prisons, long before the coronavirus pandemic. But the outbreak of the highly-transmissible disease in densely populated areas with lack of proper hygiene facilities — such as detention cells and prisons — pushed the Department of Justice as well Supreme Court to craft guidelines to decongest our jails and prisons.

RELATED: Group calls for transparency in jail reports as coronavirus hits Philippine prisons

A Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism report in May quoted Bureau of Corrections as saying that the Bilibid is packed with 28,000 people. NBP’s maximum security compound is designed to hold 6,000 people but currently houses 19,000 inmates.

BuCor Director General Gerald Bantag said Monday that the Bilibid recorded 21 deaths due to COVID-19 since March. Five inmates remain in isolation at Site Harry.

Probe into high-profile inmates’ deaths

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra issued a department order directing the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the deaths of the high-profile inmates, including Jaybee Sebastian who is a witness in the drug case against Sen. Leila De Lima.

The Senate, meanwhile, is also moving to conduct a legislative inquiry into the matter following Senate President Vicente Sotto III’s filed resolution on Monday.

Cayosa said: “We call for strict accountability beyond investigations. Unless erring prison officers are promptly removed, prosecuted, and put in jail, the sorry state of our prisons will continue or will even get worse.”

BuCor chief Bantag had already agreed with the conduct of impartial investigation, to dispel doubts swirling around the deaths of the high-profile inmates.

'Data Privacy Act not a shield to accountability'

Cayosa also said the Data Privacy Act should not be used to “blur accountability of public officers, thwart the constitutional right to information on matters of public concern, or disregard the personal interest of the victims and all those who labored to hold the guilty accountable.”

“Transparency should instead be promoted  to help heal and disinfect our seriously ailing prison system,” he added.

When reports broke out that nine high-profile inmates, including Sebastian, due to COVID-19, Bantag on Sunday cited the Data Privacy Act in declining to confirm the names.

Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro also pointed out that high-profile inmates such as Sebastian “had become public figures” after their association with national issues.

“There is justified public interest to release information like details surrounding the deaths from COVID-19 of these high-profile inmates, especially when the personal information being sought is linked to issues already on the minds of the public,” Liboro added.

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