COVID-19 Op-ed

Noticing the Unnoticed: Philippine Prisons in the Wake of COVID-19

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Bea PielagoResearch and
Acquisitions Associate (Asia Society for Social Improvement and Sustainable

The Philippines is infamous for having the highest number of
prison inmates in the world, coupled with extremely small and cramped prison
spaces. Following the first few months of President Duterte’s campaign on the
War on Drugs in 2016, the already high number of prisoners increased to nine
times more than the prisons’ maximum capacity (Al Jazeera, 2016). In 2018, a
total number of 136,314 inmates were detained by the Bureau of Jail
Management and Penology (BJMP) in jails with an ideal capacity of only 25,268
inmates (ABS-CBN, 2020). The “social distancing” promoted by health
organizations around the world remains impossible for Filipino inmates who
are already struggling to even find a space to sleep on the overcrowded cell
floors. This leaves the inmates particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19
virus, with the media referring to Philippine prisons as “ticking
timebombs”.Families of the prisoners and non-governmental organizations have
called out for the temporary release of sick and older prisoners on
humanitarian grounds, but have found no success (Human Rights Watch, 2020).
Instead, the government responded with President Duterte’s first report to
the Congress that 47 million pesos were allotted to protect prisoners of the
country from getting infected with the virus (GMA, 2020).However, the
Philippine government continues to detain numerous people both for violating
quarantine measures and spreading false news on the internet. Two weeks ago,
more than 20,000 had been arrested for quarantine and curfew violations
(ABS-CBN 2020). Although the detainees are scheduled to be released after the
enhanced community quarantine space, this doesn’t change the fact that they
contribute to further overcrowding in cells as they are not separated from
actual inmates. Lawyer Kristina Conti stated that the people detained were
not even tested for coronavirus. Instead, their body temperatures were just
scanned through thermal scanners. Department of Interior and Local Government
(DILG) Secretary Eduardo Año’s confident claims that BJMP jails are 100% safe
from the COVID-19 virus, even if they were true, may be undermined by
continued detainment of many new citizens. To claim that all jails are 100%
safe under already dire conditions is a faulty and dangerous
overstatement.The deadline for debating whether we are prepared for the
pandemic passed a while ago. Answers from these debates should serve as
lessons and policy references to improve the Philippines’ healthcare system
and responses to future emergencies. In addition, the unacceptably high
number of overall inmates in small prison cells should lead to a call for
transformative prison measures and alternatives to imprisonment. Meanwhile,
among the core issues we should be focusing on are actions to respond rapidly
and effectively before the Philippines’ “ticking timebombs” indeed
explode.References: Magsino,
Dono. “P47M
Used for COVID-19 Prevention in Philippine Jails
, Says Duterte.”
GMA News Online, GMA News Online, 31 Mar. 2020.Maretti,
Alberto. “Prisons
and Rehab Overcrowding in the Philippines.
Al Jazeera,
14 Dec. 2016“Philippines:
Reduce Crowded Jails to Stop COVID-19.
Human Rights
, 7 Apr. 2020See, Aie Balagtas. “Why
Philippine Jails Could Be a Ticking Time Bomb during Coronavirus
.” ABS, 11 Apr. 2020

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