CAGAYAN DE ORO (MindaNews / 19 April) — A group of human rights lawyers has asked the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) for the temporary release of non-violent prisoners, including the elderly and political prisoners.
In a press statement, Atty. Czarina Golda S. Musni, Secretary-General of the Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao, said provincial jails across Mindanao are overflowing with prisoners making them vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
Musni cited the Misamis Oriental provincial jail which is packed with detainees including the elderly and at least 14 political prisoners.
“All jailhouses in Mindanao are congested making it impossible to practice social distancing,” Musni said.
She said the elderly detainees, political prisoners who have aged to their senior years, and the immuno-compromised are at risk of infection and, worse, death.
She said the temporary release of the detainees should be subject to the rules of court on bail, recognizance or special arrangement by the Supreme Court.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) joined the growing concern over detainees in the congested jailhouses in the country in the time of COVID-19.
Boris Michel, ICRC head of delegation, said the number of confirmed COVID-19-positives among inmates and jail staff at the Quezon City jail is worrisome.
The BJMP on Friday reported nine inmates and nine of their staff in the Quezon City jail had tested positive for COVID-19.
Michel said the ICRC is helping the BJMP by providing them with materials, equipment and infection-control training for its staff.
Last week, the ICRC assisted the BJMP in setting up a 48-bed tent COVID-19 isolation facility for detainees in the new Quezon City Jail in Payatas, which is currently operational.
The ICRC said it will expand the capacity of the facility to 150 beds “to respond to future needs.”
In a statement, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch said the Philippine government “should urgently reduce overcrowding in detention facilities, by releasing minor offenders and prioritizing the release of older prisoners and those with underlying health conditions at particular risk from COVID-19.”
“Failure to act now could result in a serious outbreak in the country’s jails and prisons, threatening the lives of prisoners whose health the authorities have a duty to protect,” he said.
Release low-risk and political prisoners
Lawyer Antonio La Viña, former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government who teaches Constitutional law in several schools in Manila and Mindanao, was among the first to push for the release of “all low-risk and all political prisoners to avoid COVID-19 infection.”
Long before the COVID-19 cases in the Quezon City jail were reported, La Viña, who hails from Cagayan de Oro, wrote in his March 20 column published in www.mindanews.com, that 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.”
He noted that although correctional facilities cannot be closed, “they must be included in any plan aimed at slowing the surge in infections and protecting public safety.”
He pointed to lessons from history, about how prisons and jails became 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,” he said.
He cited studies by Raymund E. Narag, PhD of Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Clarke Jones, PhD of Australian National University, indicating that jails are most susceptible to the spread of the disease.
“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,” La Viña wrote.
He said other countries are doing this to prevent the spread of the disease. “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,” La Viña said. (Froilan Gallardo with a report from Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)