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Pandemic locks PDLs' families out of prisons

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Pandemic locks PDLs' families out of prisons
Members of a private group called ‘Savepoint Corona Busters Team’ spray disinfectant in the detention cells at the Manila Police District headquarters yesterday. The Department of Health earlier warned that spraying or misting using chemicals is not proven to kill the coronavirus.
The STAR / Edd Gumban, file

MANILA, Philippines — Belle Castillo has not seen her father, 62-year-old activist Ferdinand, for more than a year since detention and prison facilities in the country were locked up to prevent the entry of the deadly coronavirus in these overpopulated spaces.

On top of a continuing legal fight against what family and supporters believe are a made-up charge, Belle and her mother Nona are also wracked with worry for Ferdinand, who has rheumatic heart disease, gout and other illnesses that make him vulnerable to COVID-19 and other diseases.

"We are greatly worried because two political prisoners already died of heart attacks even before the COVID-19 pandemic, in the same jail where my father is imprisoned. There were also other political prisoners in other jails who suffered the same fate with other illnesses. Incarceration in Philippine prisons is already a virtual death sentence, especially in overcrowded jails," she told Philstar.com.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, Philippine jails and prisons have been hotbeds for communicable diseases, sociologist Hannah Glimpse Nario-Lopez told Philstar.com in a phone interview.

Nario-Lopez is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman and has been working on issues on jail and prison management.

A May 2020 report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism quoted Raymund Narag, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University and an expert on Philippine jails, as saying that should the coronavirus spread detention centers, "I believe there will be multiple bombs that will explode."

Taking a leaf from Narag’s statement, Nario-Lopez said jails and prison facilities in the Philippines are "a landmine waiting to explode."

"Even before, there were diseases spreading [inside] but we who are outside, we are not that affected because these are communicable diseases with medicine like tuberculosis, boils and diarrhea," she said in Filipino.

"So there is always an outbreak inside the jails, but COVID, the moment it enters, that will be a very big problem," she added.

Knocking on boarded-up gates

As the coronavirus forced millions of people into the confines of their homes in March 2020, jails and prison facilities in the country were locked up too.

Nario-Lopez recalled that she was in a Manila jail days prior to the imposition of the enhanced community quarantine in Luzon. "They were really caught off-guard, because the whole world, even the economy, had to lock down."

At the time, governments and the private sector across the world were devising protocols to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The sociologist said that jail management had to find measures too, and they resolved to lock-up facilities. Nario-Lopez said she offered advice on how jail officers can explain the lockdown to visitors.

"Visiting is not just a social event when you miss a person and you go to them. No. It’s really more psychological, emotional support — support for the everyday sustenance of the [Person Deprived of Liberty]," she added.

The sociology professor explained that in the Philippines most crimes are poverty-driven and inmates and detainees are mostly breadwinners who wanted to make ends meet.

"When the lockdown happened, no provisions from the outside came in, so our PDLs had a more difficult time, even our jail wardens," Nario-Lopez added.

RELATED: Baby River, Enrile's release and the long wait on political prisoners' plea

A long history of stigma

She lamented that the BJMP has long suffered from a low budget, even having to allot a measly P60 a day for each prisoner's needs.

When the number of PDLs swelled in 2016 following arrests and surrenders related to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drug war,” more prisoners had to contend with an even smaller budget for food.

In September 2017, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto rang the alarm on the P2.32-billion food budget for BJMP detainees. He noted that the allocation was based on an inmate population of 106,280, but the number of PDLs had already swelled to 142,282 as of June 30 of that year, and is projected to reach 150,000 by the end of this month.

Nario-Lopez explained:  “The BJMP is very, very under budget since... and this is mainly because of the public sentiment that basically our PDLs should be at the bottom of the food chain because of the stigma.”

“A lot of people feel that they don’t have the rights anymore and therefore it’s okay for them to suffer inside our city jails or any kind of jail or prison system,” she added.

With the BJMP lacking funds and even personnel, prisoners have to rely on their families for provisions.

“Because ang pagtingin sa kanila ay hindi tao, so yung dalaw nila, ang nagdadala talaga ng pagkain nilang maayos (Because they are viewed as no longer human, it is left to their visitors bring them proper food),” the sociologist added.

Belle shared that her father, detained at the Metro Manila District Jail at Camp Bagong Diwa, in Taguig City, is vegan. This diet has kept illnesses at bay for Ferdinand. “So we really ensure that his food supplies get there regularly,” she said.

She added that the jail wardens of the facility where her father is detained assured them that all the prisoners, including political prisoners, are getting proper care.

"They are willing to listen to some of our demands or suggestions. Regardless of the assurance, all prisoners should be granted immediate release by the courts, they shouldn’t be there in the first place. They should not be in jail at all,” she added.

Bureau of Jail Management and Penology Management spokesperson Xavier Solda confirmed that in-person visits in jails remain suspended, but electronic visits or eDalaw are allowed.

“While jails are still on lockdown, families are allowed for ‘paabot’ to bring essential items to the facility such as additional food or medicines to their loved ones subject to the usual security and health protocols in jails,” he said.

It is the same situation at the Bureau of Corrections that, more than a year into its lockdown, has yet to allow visitors. Justice Undersecretary Deo Marco told Philstar.com that the BuCor has since allowed families to bring in food and medicine for inmates.

BuCor manages prisons for convicts sentenced to more than three years, while BJMP is tasked with facilities for those serving sentences shorter than three years and those undergoing trial.

Pinning hopes on the government

The outbreak of the highly transmissible disease in densely populated areas with a lack of proper hygiene facilities — such as detention cells and prisons — pushed the Department of Justice and SC to craft guidelines to release PDLs and decongest the cells.

The SC has issued circulars on the reiteration of guidelines on release of qualified PDLs through self-recognizance and provisional dismissal and on new guidelines on the reduced bail and recognizance as modes for releasing of indigent PDLs.

The latest available data from the Supreme Court’s Office of the Court Administrator showed that 137,645 inmates have been freed from the time the pandemic started to April 9, 2021.

Justice Undersecretary Marco explained that “[Secretary Guevarra’s] priority in addressing the COVID-situation is to lower COVID cases, but ever since, our priority has been [the] releases.”

He added the DOJ has resumed processing of releases under the Good Conduct and Time Allowance law, which, in 2019, courted controversy over the reported release of convicts of heinous crimes. Implementing rules for GCTA have since been revised.

RELATED: After suspension and call for transparency, government quietly resumes GCTA

In April 2020, the DOJ eased the application requirements for those seeking parole and executive clemency while applications of inmates who are elderly, sickly or suffering from terminal, life-threatening illnesses or have serious disabilities will be given priority.

Families of political prisoners, led by advocacy group Kapatid, appealed to the SC for the temporary release of their loved ones, but after five months of waiting, they were redirected to lower courts instead.

The Castillos were among those who pinned their hopes on the high court for Ferdinand's temporary release since his illnesses leave him vulnerable to COVID-19. "We were dismayed by the [SC] decision to pass the decisions to the lower courts," Belle said.

But their fight for the welfare of inmates did not end when they failed to get a favorable ruling from the SC. As the government started rolling out the national vaccination program, they pleaded: Do not forget inmates languishing in our overcrowded detention cells.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said they are looking into including inmates in the A5 priority vaccination list, along with the indigent population.

The government vaccination program is currently focused on the A1 to A3 priority sectors of medical frontliners, senior citizens and people with comorbidities.

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

KAPATID

SUPREME COURT

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