VIP jailbirds

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 20, 2014 - 12:00am

Let’s see… if a hungry, impoverished man steals P100 and is caught, he could get beaten up by a mob before he is tossed into a dingy, crowded jail, there to rot for months because he has no money to post bail.

If, on the other hand, a businesswoman makes a career of thievery and steals P10 billion from taxpayers, she bags a meeting at Malacañang with the president of the republic no less, gets an entire bungalow to herself as her jail plus a month-long hysterectomy furlough in a hospital.

Her alleged cohorts – legislators sworn to uphold the law – are also accused of stealing billions, not because of hunger but because they can, and because in this country, you can never be too thin, too botoxed or stem celled, or too rich. They are set to be detained in remodeled private cells, with gleaming tiled floors, private toilet and shower and kitchenette.

Imelda Marcos, accused but never convicted of stealing billions, famously borrowed a line from George Orwell, that some are more equal than others, and she is living proof of this.

Life is unfair, and nowhere more so than in societies such as ours where the demarcation lines between the .001 percent and the rest are as solid as the high walls built around gated villages to keep out the riff-raff.

Among the residents of these exclusive villages are the thieves who steal billions. When caught, they seek to maintain their privileged lifestyles even in jail – and how easily we oblige them.

Police and local government jails hold detainees who have not been convicted and are therefore presumed innocent. Those convicted are sent to the national prisons.

Whether convicted with finality or presumed innocent, however, a free society that claims to be just and humane is supposed to respect certain rights of inmates. The thrust of modern penology is also supposed to be rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Those rights include decent incarceration facilities. Unfortunately, we tend to remember these rights, including the presumption of innocence, only when the inmates are VIPs.

For petty thieves and other riff-raff, innocent or not, grimy cells with poor ventilation, infested with cockroaches, mosquitoes and rodents will do. Inmates sleep on double and sometime triple-deck bunks, and use stinking common toilets and baths where the dirt and slime have become resistant even to industrial muriatic acid.

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Businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles is detained in a bungalow at a police camp in Laguna because, we are told, there are serious threats to her life. The threat seems plausible, but a modern jail is supposed to have special maximum security cells for such high-value inmates.

Authorities fretted that Napoles might be killed when the administration was still considering her as a state witness. This was the same explanation given for her meeting with President Aquino and his key aides at Malacañang, with these top officials escorting her to Camp Crame.

But after Napoles implicated administration allies and officials led by P-Noy’s other BFF (apart from Mar Roxas), Budget Secretary Butch Abad, in the pork barrel scam, the Palace treated her as if she had late-stage MERS. P-Noy said she could not qualify as a state witness, and state prosecutors dutifully complied.

So since her testimony is no longer of interest to daang matuwid, maybe Napoles no longer needs that bungalow jail, whose maintenance is being charged to Juan and Juana de la Cruz.

As for her co-accused, perhaps the mass incarceration of lawmakers will lead to better detention facilities for all. We don’t have special facilities for white-collar offenders or even for juveniles. Our detention facilities for women are also inadequate. A young woman I know who spent four nights in a Las Piñas jail for a minor offense remains a nervous wreck many months after she was forgiven by the complainant and freed. 

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A problem here is that the average taxpayer will likely balk at the allocation of funds to modernize detention facilities.

The attitude stems partly from the thought that because of the weakness of the country’s criminal justice system, people think the only punishment that will ever be suffered by criminal offenders is jail time while they are on trial. Too many cases are dismissed on technicalities, bungled arrests, or lack of interest on the part of the complainant and police. Escape is also easy, especially for moneyed detainees such as notorious drug dealers.

In the case of VIP officials charged with plunder, the pardon granted to former President Joseph Estrada after his conviction has raised the specter of a mass pardon for the nearly 200 senators and congressmen who should be indicted for misuse of their pork barrel, if the documents submitted by the Commission on Audit (COA) would be given weight.

The slowness of state prosecutors in going after all those named in the COA reports is giving the three senators reason to cry selective prosecution. They are achieving some success in presenting their prosecution as something bordering on pathological obsession on the part of daang matuwid.

Already the senators are openly considering the best way out of their legal nightmare: running again in 2016. It’s not uncommon in this country, unfortunately. When a politician is convicted, he runs for public office again – and often wins, even behind bars. When told he has terminal cancer, he runs for president.

When politicians healthy enough to run for public office are arrested for a serious offense, they invoke old age and poor health to stay out of jail. But they are always healthy and young enough to seek election again.

A remedy should be a speedy trial so that verdicts on the pork barrel cases can be reached before the elections in May 2016. But a two-year trial is rocket speed for our snail-paced justice system.

Faced with the prospect that accused plunderers might be elected in 2016, there is little public support for proposals to improve the nation’s detention facilities.

And there is indignation at the provision of comfortable VIP cells for elected officials accused of betraying public trust.

The lesson people take away from such VIP treatment is that in this country, if you’re going to steal, it’s better to steal big.












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