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Before Covid-19, Philippine Jails Already a Death Trap

Human rights advocates believe that numbers will still increase and the full force of Covid-19 is yet to be felt. They also call for transparency in releasing death and infection rates to help craft policies and mitigate the spread of false information.

BY AIE BALAGTAS SEE/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

AN AVERAGE of 50 to 60 prisoners have died in the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) every month for the past six months but only one death in April has been attributed to Covid-19.

For the Bureau of Corrections (Bucor) the death toll in February, March, and April was still within the range of monthly deaths in the last quarter of 2019 to early 2020. The pandemic has ravaged the country since March, with local transmission of the coronavirus taking place as early as February. Humanitarian groups have since warned of its catastrophic effect on the country’s prison system.

“It still falls under our average death rate for the past six months,” Bucor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag said in a phone interview.

The high death rate, Chaclag said, was proportional to Bilibid’s huge population, currently at 28,000. The population could create from 11 to 14 barangays. Chaclag claimed that if they have lower population, then they will have fewer deaths.  

Bilibid is one of Bucor’s seven facilities for convicts. It had recorded one to three deaths daily from October 2019 to April 2020, noted Chaclag. Most came from the maximum-security compound, which was designed for 6,000 but currently holds 19,000 men. Chaclag said that the cause of these deaths varied, citing illnesses such as cancer and heart failure as major ones. 

“Loneliness, nightmares, and accidents” were also seen as reasons for these deaths according to Chaclag.

Prisoners in extremely congested jail facilities live in deplorable conditions, lacking proper health care, hygiene, and nutrition. Human rights advocates have called for the early release of elderly and sickly detainees. They have also pushed for making available information on death and infection rates.

With Covid-19 breaching Bilibid walls, the deaths are sowing panic and paranoia among disgruntled detainees who, according to an insider, fear that the virus has already exploded within prison compounds.

The lone Covid-related death from NBP was reported on April 23. There have been no confirmed Covid-19 cases in Bilibid since, but at least 44 inmates have been in quarantine, Chaclag confirmed. Four of them were tested for the virus, with results yet to be released.

Health undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, in a phone interview, said that only one NBP inmate had tested positive for coronavirus as of May 4.

A prison insider said bodies were piling up in NBP’s old isolation ward called Dorm 1D. In late April, at least “20 bodies emitting foul odor” were stacked there. On May 1, the insider added, three men died after the NBP hospital ran out of oxygen.

“The inmates plan to hold a noise barrage but Bucor guards threatened to shoot them,” the insider said. 

Chaclag denied this, saying those “who have agenda” should stop weaving stories that sow paranoia, which could lead to a riot in NBP. Bodies were not piling up, he said. There were days when the funeral parlor could not retrieve them because the cause of death was unknown. “We had to wait for the crematorium personnel to pick them up,” he explained.

Guidelines issued by the Health department stated that deaths with unknown causes shall be treated as Covid cases and the corpse cremated within 12 hours.

Six to five NBP inmates who died in their dormitories were cremated last month. This is not a known practice in NBP. Bodies without cause of death were usually autopsied and kept by funeral parlors until someone claimed them.  

Chaclag said that unclaimed bodies in the past were either buried in the NBP cemetery or were taken advantage of by funeral parlors who sold them to operators of “sakla,” a form of illegal gambling carried out during wakes to help families raise funds for burial expenses. In the case of unclaimed inmates, the earnings simply went to the pockets of the syndicates.

Old conditions and new virus, a lethal mix

Inmate deaths is a decades-old problem at the New Bilibid Prison. The global pandemic merely reopened the old Pandora’s box. 

The national penitentiary was already in the spotlight last year because of the alarming number of deaths there. Henry Fabro, the Bilibid hospital chief, said one prisoner there dies each day.

Humanitarian groups have long blamed overpopulation, poor hygiene, lack of proper food, and limited access to health care for the lamentable condition. The calls to depopulate jails have only grown louder with the coronavirus now part of the equation.

Rights advocates have called for the release of vulnerable inmates, saying infections in detention areas might risk jail staff and visitors, and can potentially lead to the reinfection of the general public. 

One of these advocates, Raymund Narag, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University and expert in Philippine jails, told PCIJ that there should be transparency in dealing with these problems.

“It is their moral and legal obligation to be transparent. It is the only way to mitigate the spread of false information. It is also helpful in crafting policies if information are timely and accurately provided,” Narag said.

Death and infection rates in detention facilities have always been difficult to obtain. Like Narag, Human Rights Watch has called for transparency after learning that one detainee dies every week in Quezon City Jail since the coronavirus hit the facility last March.

Paul Borlongan, chief doctor of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), which supervises city jails, also claims that BJMP’s death statistics is still “acceptable.”

In recent years, from 300 to 800 detainees have died in BJMP annually. “So far, I can say that our death statistics is still acceptable,” Borlongan said, adding that, “we expect 20 to 40 per week and sometimes 60 to 80 per month.”

Clash of statistics

Transparency is not the only problem. A clash of statistics among government agencies, and between the local and national governments, is adding to the confusion. 

According to Usec. Vergeire, there were 249 Covid-positive inmates in jails and prisons as of May 3. Of these, 187 were in Cebu City Jail, 49 in the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong, 12 in Quezon City Jail, and one in Bilibid. 

The facilities that appear to be the hardest hit are the most congested. Cebu City Jail is overpopulated by 1,000 percent and has the highest number of inmates at 6,237. Quezon City Jail is the third most crowded with 3,821 inmates as of March 2020.

As far as BJMP is concerned, only nine inmates — not 12 — from Quezon City Jail are considered Covid-positive patients. Borlongan surmised that the three other inmates in DOH’s list were those whose deaths were considered “possible Covid” cases because they had flu-like symptoms or pulmonary problems.

As of April 27, BJMP has recorded a total of 195 inmates and 34 jail staff who tested positive for Covid-19. Five jail personnel had recovered while none of the inmates have yet to be cleared of the illness. BJMP also documented cases in Mandaue City Jail, Marikina City Jail, Pasay City Jail, and Mandaluyong City Jail. These jails are not in the DOH list.

The City Reformatory Center in Zamboanga City was also reported to have Covid-positive cases. BJMP’s Borlongan said he has not received the official report about these cases.

Infections were also reported in the Cebu Provincial Jail, which is managed by the local government.

A Bucor official, who requested anonymity, also complained of slow and unreliable test results from the Health department. “We have to repeat the test each time they release results to us. It’s a waste of resources. Once, our staff tested positive but when the Philippine Red Cross rechecked it, the results were negative.”

The World Health Organization, International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Health department are working alongside Bucor and BJMP in setting up quarantine facilities for infected detainees. 

DOH Undersecretary Vergeire said they also plan to “conduct targeted testing, provide treatment and management of cases, and ensure that infection control measures are in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in penal and correctional facilities.”

Prisoner release and other urgent calls

From March 17 to April 29, almost 10,000 inmates have been released as bid to curb the spread of coronavirus in jails. The Supreme Court has also allowed the release of pre-trial detainees in jail for crimes punishable with six-month incarceration and below. A reduction of bail has been recommended for non-convicts facing charges punishable with jail time of six months to 20 years.

Petitions seeking temporary freedom for the sick and elderly are still pending approval.

Last March, Interior secretary Eduardo Año rejected calls to release vulnerable inmates, saying jails were the “safest” place for them. The growing number of Covid-19 cases now appear to disprove this claim.

“If many people — prisoners, guards, their families, the people i[n] neighborhoods around jails— die because of Covid-19, the massacre is squarely the responsibility of government,” Human rights advocate and Ateneo de Manila University professor Antonio La Viña said.

Narag and La Viña believe the numbers will still increase and the full force of Covid-19 is yet to be felt. “I believe that there will be multiple bombs that will explode. Many PDLs [persons deprived of liberty] had been dying from many jails… only that it is not reported as such. But once the news report will catch up, I will not be shocked,” Narag said.

Warnings about the coronavirus being a bomb that could explode in jails and prisons were made in early March. These fell on deaf ears until infections began to manifest, with  jails and prisons fast becoming the next epicenters of the virus. “Our prisons will be ground zero unless we decongest now,” said La Viña.

Narag and La Viña are urging the government to take swift actions, stressing that the disease’s spread is a public issue and not only the problem of the corrections and prison system. “We are already faced by a problem that can kill us all,” Narag said.

Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at aie.bsee@gmail.com for comments.

Photograph by Kimberly dela Cruz— PCIJ, May 2020

Group fears mass contagion in prisons, slams OSG’s dismissal of temporary liberty petition

By Joseph Cuevas

Families of political prisoners expressed fear their loved ones may contract the coronavirus after different jails across the country reported detainees getting sick from the disease.

The Bureau of Corrections reported an additional 27 new cases of Covid-19 from the Correctional Institute for Women bringing the total case to 50. A 56 year-old inmate from Medium Security Compound of New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa died last April 23 at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine.

Cebu City jails recorded the highest number of cases at 207 while the Quezon City Jail reported nine positive cases last week.

According to Kapatid, the group of families and friends of political prisoners, no lockdown or even quarantine measures at this stage can contain the outbreak of the disease in the country’s prisons the Philippine Red Cross said is 500% over-congested.

The group earlier warned the government that jails are safe against the virus and urged immediate and extensive testing of both inmates and personnel to stop contagion in prisons/

Kapatid, counsel slams OSG comment

Meanwhile, Kapatid lamented the Office of the Solicitor General’s (OSG) comment to dismiss the petition filed by the group last April 8 asking the Supreme Court (SC) to free low-risk offenders from prisons on humanitarian grounds, including old and the sick prisoners.

In a statement, Kapatid said that OSG’s summary dismissal of their petition is “the height of callousness and disregard for human life.”

The group added that the OSG’s reply to the SC’s order to comment on the petition became a platform for attacking the Left instead of addressing the plight of the elderly and the sick, including a 21-year old prisoner afflicted with leprosy and a six-month pregnant woman.

This petition, while initiated by families of political prisoners, is meant to help all prisoners at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic they say is now invading prison facilities.

Atty. Maria Kristina Conti of the Public Interest Law Center told Kodao that the OSG’s comment to the petition maligned and red-tagged political prisoners.

Conti added that it’s because the OSG cannot deny that the petitioners are indeed vulnerable to the deadly virus and cannot promise detainees are safe, it resorted to attacking character and motives.

“Legally, the OSG failed to refute the application for equity relief in these extraordinary times. We hope that the Supreme Court sees through the government’s rhetoric and gas-lighting tactics, The virus is the enemy, not the people,” Conti said.

The PILC and the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers are set to file a reply on Monday, April 27, to the comment filed by the OSG. #

Philippine Jails are a Covid-19 Time Bomb

The Philippines has the most crowded correctional system in the world. It’s only a matter of time before the virus enters and spreads in prison and jail facilities. Humanitarian groups have called for the early release of elderly and sickly and nonviolent, low-risk detainees.

BY AIE BALAGTAS SEE/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

ON APRIL 1, the police brought to a jampacked detention center at the Quezon City Police District headquarters 21 residents of a poor community who had been arrested for breaking quarantine rules. 

 When they got there, the detainees were not tested for the coronavirus nor were they isolated from other inmates. “The police just took their body temperature using a thermal scanner and that was it,” said lawyer Kristina Conti, who represented them.

Since none of them showed Covid-19 symptoms, said Conti, they were locked up without being required to undergo a 14-day quarantine. 

Because the detention cells were already full, the 16 men were kept outside a 5×5 meter cell for male detainees that already housed nearly a dozen other inmates. Later they were moved to another cell, all of them crammed in a 3×4-meter space. The women were placed with other female detainees in a separate cell. 

 “Social distancing, of course, is impossible,” Conti said. At night, the inmates slept side-by-side on the same cold floor. They didn’t have easy access to toilets, making frequent handwashing difficult. The jail did not provide rubbing alcohol, masks or soap, although some donors sent some supplies. 

 Police lockups like those at the Quezon City police headquarters in Diliman are temporary holding areas for suspects undergoing investigation or awaiting court orders that would send them to more permanent detention centers. 

On March 14, just before the Metro Manila lockdown, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) suspended the transfer of these suspects to the 467 district, city and municipal jails under its jurisdiction. 

 This means that suspected offenders will have to be kept indefinitely in small lockups in police precincts that do not have clinics nor doctors and nurses on staff. Most of these also do not have enough toilets or showers to service the influx of new inmates.

 As of last week, more than 20,000 had been arrested for quarantine and curfew violations. Most have been released and will face charges once the health crisis is over. Some 4,000 are currently being detained in police lockups and are awaiting transfer to city jails.

 “If the police continue to arrest, their detainee population will continue to grow and will make their situation worse,” said Raymund Narag, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University and an expert in Philippine jails. “Our police detention centers are extremely congested and do not have the capacity to segregate, much more isolate, infected individuals.”

LOCKED UP. Detainees at the Manila Police District Station 5.
File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Health risks of overcrowded jails

Narag was once a prisoner himself, having spent six years at the Quezon City Jail before he was found innocent of involvement in a fraternity rumble that resulted in the death of one student.

“The Philippines has the most crowded correctional system in the world,” he said. “It is only a matter of time before infections creep into the very congested jail and prison facilities.” 

Like other prison advocates around the world, Narag is calling for the release of nonviolent, low-risk, and bailable pretrial detainees as well as vulnerable, elderly, and sickly convicts. 

Both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Human Rights Watch have also asked the government to release nonviolent prisoners, saying overpopulated prisons, jails and lock-up cells make them fertile grounds for spreading infectious diseases. 

“The early release of the most vulnerable detainees (elderly, sick) and those with minor offenses is an option that could be taken by the Philippine government,” said ICRC spokesperson Allison Lopez.

OVERCROWDED. Detainees sleep cheek by jowl at the Quezon City detention center. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

According to the BJMP, jails across the country are running at 500% overcapacity. In March this year, these jails had 134,748 detainees nationwide, a 40% increase since 2015, largely because of the surge of detainees from the government’s anti-drug campaign.

Even before the pandemic, poor jail conditions have already resulted in the death of 300 to 800 inmates annually in recent years, according to BJMP doctor Paul Borlongan. In 2018 alone, 40 prisoners died each month in different BJMP jails in Metro Manila, said Narag.

The 21 residents who were arrested on April 1 came from Sitio San Roque in Quezon City’s Barangay Bagong Pag-asa, which has six recorded Covid-19 cases. Earlier that day, the residents had gathered near the Trinoma mall along North EDSA to demand government aid because they were hungry.

After five days in detention, all 21 were released on bail on Monday afternoon. They returned to their shanties in Sitio San Roque, where some 6,000 families live in crowded settlement of tiny, wooden and cinderblock homes.

A patchwork of detention policies

Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, the deputy police chief for operations, is aware that locking up new inmates poses a threat to the safety of the prisoners and the jail staff. 

The police does not want to congest the jails any further, he said, and would prefer to release violators after 12 hours. But they also need to abide by the national government’s orders and with the desire of many local officials to get quarantine and curfew violators off the streets.

The result is a patchwork of policies depending on what local governments mandate. In the city of Manila, Eleazar said, violators were freed immediately after cases had been filed. But some cities like Navotas complained “that people will not learn their lesson if the police release them.” When the police warned that a steady stream of new inmates could wreak havoc on detention centers, Navotas used schools as a temporary lockup.

NAVOTAS CITY JAIL DETAINEES. The Philippines has the most crowded correctional system in the world. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Senior Supt. Baby Noel Montalvo, BJMP’s director for Health Service, said that even before the pandemic, most of those transferred to their jails were already “sick or severely ill or have symptoms of respiratory infection.” Accepting new detainees, he said, will only increase the risk of infection and compromise the safety of inmates. 

The Philippines has a three-tiered prison system. The police lockups are the lowest tier. Jails run by the BJMP are for those awaiting trial, are currently being tried or serving short jail terms. Convicted prisoners who are serving sentences of three or more years are sent to facilities run by the Bureau of Corrections (Bucor).

The police, the BJMP and Bucor are using different approaches to dealing with the pandemic. The BJMP implemented the strictest measures—no new detainees and an absolute lockdown that required jail guards to stay inside jails until the quarantine is lifted. In-person visitation was restricted, and the “paabot (pass over)” privilege, where jail staff receive packages from outsiders and deliver them to specific inmates during ordinary lockdowns, was cancelled. 

 The lone exceptions are the jails in Northern Mindanao, where the courts are issuing commitment orders that send detainees to jails. 

SICK IN PRISON. Detainees at the infirmary of Manila City Jail. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Less stringent at Bilibid

Bucor is less stringent in its seven facilities, including the national penitentiary known as Bilibid. Visitation rights were cancelled but the paabot system remains in place. Guards are allowed to leave prison and penal colonies after their tour of duty, which usually lasts for a week.

Unlike the BJMP, Bucor, with a current inmate population of 49,584, is still accepting new prisoners. Spokesman Gabriel Chaclag said the latest addition arrived in late March. Newly arrived detainees are evaluated for a week or two before they join other prisoners.

Bucor officials came under Senate scrutiny last year because of the alarming number of prison deaths in the national penitentiary. Henry Fabro, the chief of the Bilibid hospital, said one prisoner there dies each day. Officials blamed overpopulation for the deaths.

Chaclag insisted that social distancing was “possible” within Bucor compounds, unlike in other jails. He could not explain why that was the case, saying only that prisoners were “old enough” to decide how to implement social distancing among themselves. “Because of the information drive, they took it upon themselves to maintain their distance from one another. They no longer eat or pray together,” he said.

The risks, however, are not just that the prisoners will infect each other. Eventually, jail and prison officers will have to go home, take a rest, and recharge. When that happens, corrections staff will be exposed to the coronavirus and risk infecting the prisoners when they return. As one jail official told Narag, “One miss, we all die.”

Meanwhile, jails are preparing for the inevitable. Bilibid has prepared nine buildings for Covid-19 patients. Cities are setting aside isolation areas for infected inmates. In some, there is space for only one person; in others, isolation facilities can take 100 to 300 patients.

Money rules in Manila City Jail

The Manila City Jail has set aside an old building formerly used by tuberculosis patients as an isolation area. In addition, dorms and offices are disinfected daily, with inmates cleaning their own spaces to avoid contact with the staff. 

There are 14 dormitories in the jail, all of them so overcrowded, they could not possibly take any more. The facility was built for 1,100 inmates but currently houses 4,888.

Lawrence, a former Manila City Jail detainee who asked that his full name not be revealed, said money and power rule these dormitories. Those with the means pay dorm leaders so they can sleep in private cubicles called kubols. Lawrence said a kubol measures around 2×2 meters. They are “not big but provide enough space so you can stretch your arms and feet.”

Others less fortunate take turns sleeping or sleep in crouched positions, spilling out into hallways and corridors because of the lack of space. 

KUBOL. Private cubicles for rent in Manila City Jail. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Lawrence stayed in Dormitory 3 for two years. At night, he recalled, one has “to tread carefully” to avoid stepping on bodies that were like landmines on the floor. “If you accidentally step on an inmate, you will get whipped several times,” he said. The number of lashes depends on the power and position wielded by the offended party.

 Access to bathrooms is another luxury. “High-ranking detainees” like Lawrence can use bathrooms with showers and properly functioning toilets. Poor inmates use common toilets that even visitors are not allowed to use “because the stench gets so bad, it’s really embarrassing.” Common bathrooms have no doors, he said. They have tubs called “swimming pools” which inmates fill with water. Toilets are holes directly connected to drainage canals.

 In 2016, when Lawrence was first jailed, there were only 127 detainees in Dormitory 3. He left behind 605 dorm occupants in 2018, most of them facing drug charges. Despite the lockdown, arrests of drug suspects continue.

 For all the worries about the prisoners’ health, Interior Government Secretary Eduardo Año, who supervises BJMP, said jails are “the safest place right now.” Prisoners, he said, risk exposure to the virus if they were released. 

 “All prison detention cells are COVID-free,” he said in a statement. 

 Up to now, however, no jail guards or inmates in any of the Philippine jails, prisons and police detention centers, have been tested for Covid-19. #

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Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at aie.bsee@gmail.com for comments.

Rick Rocamora is an award-winning documentary photographer and author of four photo books; Filipino WWII Soldiers: America’s Second Class Veterans, Blood, Sweat, Hope and Quiapo; Rodallie S. Mosende Story, Human Wrongs, and Alagang Angara, a book that highlights the legislative achievements of Senator Ed Angara that continues to benefit our people and nation after his passing. His work is part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts, U.S. State Department Art in Embassies Program, and private and institutional collectors. His work is widely exhibited in national and international museums and galleries, published in print and online and aired in various broadcast news outlets. In the Philippines, his work had been exhibited at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Ben Cab Museum, Vargas Museum, and Ateneo Art Gallery. His exhibition, Bursting at the Seams: Inside Philippine Detention Centers won national and international awards for Filipinas Heritage Gallery of the Ayala Museum. Before pursuing a career in documentary photography, he worked in sales, marketing, and management positions for the US pharmaceutical industry for 18 years. — PCIJ, April 2020