New bill, same problem: Lawmakers bat for more prison facilities to solve jail congestion

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
New bill, same problem: Lawmakers bat for more prison facilities to solve jail congestion
This photo taken May 2020 shows elderly inmates of the New Bilibid Prison who will undergo rapid test for COVID-19.
Bureau of Corrections / Facebook page released

MANILA, Philippines — In a bid to ease the prolonged strain felt by persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) in the country’s limited jail facilities, House lawmakers have introduced a measure creating new penal facilities in 11 regions.

By adding to the seven existing correctional facilities in the country, the bill aims to accommodate and improve the living conditions of the country’s increasing number of PDLs, many of whom stay in overstuffed jails while undergoing or awaiting trial.

“The Constitution vehemently opposes the use of substandard or inadequate penal facilities under subhuman conditions. Despite the said mandate, there are only seven existing correctional facilities in the country which are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor),” said Rep. Paolo Duterte (Davao City) and Rep. Eric Yap (Benguet), authors of House Bill 8071.

The proposed Regional Penitentiaries Act seeks to create additional correctional facilities under the Bureau of Corrections in Regions I, II, III, V, VI, VIII, IX, X, XII, XIII and the Cordillera Administrative Region to account for the growing number of inmates in the country.

Currently, the country only has seven penal facilities. These are the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City; the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City; Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan; Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm in Occidental Mindoro; San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm in Zamboanga City; Leyte Regional Prison in Abuyog, Leyte; and the Davao Prison and Penal Farm in Panabo, Davao Province.

The measure also underscores the importance of providing humane facilities for those serving their sentences by requiring newly established penal farms to have complete facilities, such as dormitories, hospitals, security fences, hospitals or infirmaries, training centers, among others.

In the explanatory note of the measure, the bill's authors cited the World Prison Brief’s declaration of the Philippines as "the most overcrowded prison system in the world" with 215,000 prisoners overfilling jails and prisons more than five times its capacity. 

This reflects the "long-term neglect" of the country's prisoners, the bill’s authors wrote.

Building more facilities an 'appealing' but ineffective solution

The mere creation of more jails is not a sustainable solution to prison congestion, however, as the government also needs to rethink its policies regarding the incarceration of low-risk offenders, said international criminology expert Raymund Narag.

Narag said that detention and arrest "should be limited to those PDLs or those accused or those whom we call high-risk criminals, those who have a high chance of reoffending or high chance of committing continuous crimes."

Narag emphasized the importance of maximizing the use of probation, parole, home confinement, and work furlough. 

These methods have not been fully explored in the Philippines and can contribute to a more comprehensive approach to correctional reforms, he added.

According to the United Nations' Office of Drugs and Crime's handbook on strategies to reduce overcrowding in prisons, as "appealing" as it seems, the creation of new facilities to address cramped prisons is "generally ineffective."

"Evidence shows that as long as the shortcomings in the criminal justice system and in criminal justice policies are not addressed to rationalize the inflow of prisoners, and crime prevention measures are not implemented, new prisons will rapidly fill and will not provide a sustainable solution to the challenge of prison overcrowding," the guidebook read. 

Inadequate prison infrastructure "should not be regarded as the principal “cause” of overcrowding, but often as a symptom of dysfunction within the criminal justice system," it added. -- with reports by Kristine Joy Patag

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