QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 20 March) — In just a matter of three months, the coronavirus has visited all continents, except Antarctica, and most countries and territories around the globe. In the race to stop the spread of COVID-19, governments are scrambling to set up measures in order to contain and mitigate its socio-economic impact, protect the most vulnerable members of society, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing diseases like diabetes, respiratory ailments and cardio-pulmonary diseases. Total lockdowns, restrictions in domestic and international travels, cancellations of public events, closure of borders and suspension of non-essential travels, people are enjoined to practice social distancing, personal hygiene, frequent hand washing and a host of measures to protect the public from this deadly contagion.
In its bid to halt the rising cases of COVID-19 infections, the Philippine government placed entire Luzon under “Enhanced Community Quarantine” which means the entire 57 million inhabitants of Luzon will be under a one month lockdown, with the police and military implementing a strict home quarantine policy.
While the national and local government units are trying to address the socio-economic needs of those who will bear the brunt of the massive lockdown, one sector that seems to go under the radar is the overly crowded jails and detention facilities in the country. Although correctional facilities cannot be closed, they must be included in any plan aimed at slowing the surge in infections and protecting public safety.
History tells us prisons and jails become epicenters of disease. Not only prisoners are infected – preventing that is a laudable objective — but prison officials – wardens, guards, support staff – and family members of prisoners and officials as well as surrounding areas will be affected as well. In a way, these facilities become Trojan horses for societies where the virus will spread and cause sickness and death inside and outside.
In the Philippines, we have eight national correctional facilities, including three in Mindanao. These are: New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City; The COrrectional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong City and the CIW Mindanao in Davao del Norte, 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 Priosn in Abuyog, Leyte; and the Davao Prison and Penal Farm in Davao del Norte.
There are also hundreds of local jails and detention facilities in the Philippines, including many scattered all over Mindanao.
Raymund E. Narag, PhD of Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Clarke Jones, PhD of Australian National University, have this to say about the potential dangers that this condition pose. According to Dr. Narag and Dr. Jones, the area that is most susceptible to the spread of the disease are the jails and prisons. With an overcrowding rate of 350%, the Philippines has the most congested correctional system in the world (According to the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, the Philippines has an Occupancy level (based on official capacity)463.6% (31.5.2018). If one of these prisoners gets infected in the congested jails, it will be a horrendous nightmare. Our jail staff will be tremendously strained to handle the massive infection once it starts. Even in the more resource-endowed jail and prison facilities in Italy and USA, jail unrest has emerged.
The two experts offered sensible recommendations to ease the risk of contamination in our jampacked prisons. They suggest a temporary relief by granting medical furlough to first time, low risk, non-violent, bailable offenders. Detainees who are charged with offenses such as gambling, theft of less than a thousand pesos, drug use, etc., especially those who are old (above 60 years old) and sickly, will be prioritized for release. These are detainees that, if with money and resources, could have bailed out, and could have been released. But due to poverty, they are languishing in our jails while undergoing prolonged trials.
To implement the medical furlough, Dr. Narag and Jones suggest that the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) initiate the process by writing a letter to the Supreme Court on its assessment of the current jail health capacities. The Supreme Court through the Office of Court Administrator may then utilize this as a basis for corrective action. A Supreme Court Circular may then be issued where the jail wardens nationwide will be able to identify first-time, low risk, non-violent, bailable offenders for release.
The Public Attorney’s Office, can also make a national pleading on behalf of all the PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) similar to what was done in other jurisdictions. The list will then be submitted to the respective judges, and the judges, using their sound discretion can release the PDLs on their own self-recognizance, or even on a “One-Peso Bail.” As a condition, the PDLs will provide a promise to appear on the court-appointed dates. The wardens will get their addresses and the contact information of their relatives for monitoring.
These should include all political prisoners and all prisoners with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
The selected prisoners/detainees are low risk to public safety. In order to avoid the potential nightmare scenario of uncontrolled spread of infection within the correctional facilities, these prisoners must be released, after undergoing court approved procedures and protocols. This will give the jail staff, some of whom are also asked to man checkpoints throughout the country, time to concentrate on high risk detainees/prisoners such as recidivists, violent and non-bailable offenders (who are also still presumed innocent).
This policy is not the first of its kind adopted by some jurisdictions in order to contain the spread of coronavirus. Iran has temporarily freed about 85,000 prisoners for exactly the same reason. Los Angeles County, home to the largest county jail system in the United States, is reducing arrests and releasing inmates. Other countries like the United Kingdom and many states in the United States are mulling the same plan. Reassessing security and public health risks and acting post-haste will save the lives of the prisoners, correctional staff and their families and ultimately the community at large.
The time to act is now because time is of the essence. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Antonio “Tony” La Viña of Cagayan de Oro City is former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He teaches Constitutional law in several schools in Manila and Mindanao)