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The Old and New Bilibid Prisons in the Time of Pandemics

More than a century ago, Philippine prisons reeled from a flu pandemic. History might be repeated without adequate healthcare for prisoners and drastic interventions to stem the Covid-19 outbreak.

By Aie Balagtas See/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Will the Philippines repeat the deadly record of the 1918 influenza pandemic in its jails and prisons?

On May 21, Henry Fabro, chief physician of the Bureau of Corrections, said fatalities in New Bilibid Prison (NBP) reached an “alarming” level: five inmates died in just one day.

At least 80 prisoners died from May 1 to May 19. The figure surpassed the prison camp’s average mortality rate of 50 to 60 deaths per month. Most deaths came from the Medium Security Compound, where inmates were cramped after returning to prison amid the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) fiasco.

“The numbers are alarming, that’s why I immediately hired two additional doctors and several nurses,” Fabro told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in an interview.

“We wanted to contain it. So far, we were able to pull the death rate back to two per day,” he added.

In May, 40 out of an estimated 28,000 NBP inmates tested positive for Covid-19. One death was attributed to the highly contagious disease.

The death toll due to Covid-19 rose to 15 in June: 12 from NBP in Muntinlupa and three from the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong, according to the Bureau of Corrections.

Fabro believes half of NBP inmates are infected with the virus. However, gauging the true extent of the contagion – with scant testing that yields “snail-paced” and “unreliable” results – is impossible, he said.

Case in point: two inmates were discharged from the NBP isolation area because the Department of Health said they tested negative for the virus, Fabro said. Days later, the health department said it made a mistake.

“We had to repeat the test and expand it to those they (inmates) interacted with,” Fabro said.

Reliable testing, he said, is important to slow infections in penitentiaries and determine which prisoner should be isolated.

This was not the first time a global pandemic tore through Philippine prisons. In 1918, more than 300 inmates throughout the country died. There were nearly 200 deaths at Old Bilibid alone. Back then, the national prison was right inside the capital Manila, on Oroquieta Street in Sta. Cruz district.

A 2009 study titled “The Philippines in the World of Influenza Pandemic 1918-1919” by historian Francis Gealogo said “almost all of the [Bilibid] inmates became sick of the disease during the height of the epidemic in October and November 1918.”

“Among the 2,674 cases of this disease treated during the year, 71 cases of lobar pneumonia complications occurred with 31 deaths. Almost all of the inmates had influenza, and of those who contracted complications in their respiratory organs nearly half died,” he said.

Gealogo said hospitals were so overcrowded during the flu outbreak that 1,897 Bilibid patients who could not be admitted were treated in their own brigades. “Due to influenza and pulmonary tuberculosis, the death rate for the year 1918 was higher than that of 1917,” he added.

The Annual Report of the Secretary of War published in January 1919 said a total of 378 inmates from four prison facilities died during the pandemic.

Old Bilibid had the most deaths with 193. It was nearly double the number of the previous year, which recorded 107 deaths.

Outstations were not spared. The report said Ihawig Penal Colony in Palawan had 72 deaths, San Ramon Penal Farm in Zamboanga City had 45 and Corregidor Island, 68. In 1917, Iwahig recorded 23 deaths, while San Ramon and Corregidor had four and 39 deaths, respectively.

The Old Bilibid Prison, built during the Spanish colonial regime in 1866, is now Manila City Jail.

A century ago, pulmonary tuberculosis was the chief cause of morbidity and mortality among prisoners.

Today, deaths in prisons are a result of multiple problems, such as poor healthcare services, lack of facilities and lack of government manpower and resources. The NBP hospital inside the maximum security compound, for instance, cannot adequately serve the overpopulated prison, and renovations were put on hold because of the lockdown, Fabro said.

The prisoners’ fear of isolation and hospitalization are another factor, Fabro added.

Inmates are also refused admission in hospitals, even in those run by the government, the official said. A nongovernment organization (NGO) working with prisons made the same observation, explaining that inmates are often turned away because they do not have money and relatives to accompany them. Prison guards are not allowed to accompany inmates in hospitals.

The coronavirus outbreak has made the problem worse.

Fabro said hospitals often rejected inmates by claiming they were operating at full capacity. “Recently, a dialysis patient was refused because the hospital learned that NBP has Covid-19,” he said.

The Department of Health did not respond to queries on hospital policies on the admission of sick prison inmates.

Fabro said emergency cases from NBP and the CIW were not spared of the apparent discrimination.

“Our Alpha Patient [of Covid-19] in CIW was refused by different hospitals in Mandaluyong. After hospital shopping, her relatives found a hospital that accommodated her,” Fabro said.

The Alpha Patient, or the first Covid-19 case in CIW, died on April 27. #

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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.

Hidden Victims of the Pandemic: The Old Man, the Jail Aide, and the Convict

Three persons deprived of liberty describe how inhuman conditions in the country’s jails and prisons are placing them at greater risk amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here are their accounts as told to Aie Balagtas See. The images, drawn by Alexandra Paredes, are artistic renderings inspired by PCIJ file photos of prisoners from various jails.

By Aie Balagtas See/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

“All prison detention cells are Covid-free. That is the safest place right now,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said in late March, projecting an air of certainty even as the coronavirus pandemic raged. More than a month later, Año’s statement has become demonstrably false.

As of this writing, 716 inmates in city jails throughout the country have tested positive for the virus. In New Bilibid Prison (NBP), the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa, 140 inmates have been infected with the disease, and 12 deaths have so far been attributed to Covid-19. The Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong has recorded 82 positive cases, with three deaths.

The lack of mass tests, the highly infectious nature of the virus, the lack of protective equipment and proper healthcare, and the inhuman overcrowding at Philippine jails and prisons are a potentially deadly combination.

On condition of anonymity, three “persons deprived of liberty” talked to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in May, speaking out against the impossibility of physical distancing and the shortage of resources in prison and jail cells. The “minimum health standards” imposed outside are nonexistent. Worse, there seems to be a lack of empathy from the people who are supposed to take care of them.

Because they are locked away from the rest of society, inmates and detainees in prison and jail cells are the hidden victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are their stories.



We’re dead,” the old man thought when he first learned of Covid-19 infections. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

A. The Old Man (Quezon City Jail)

The inmates were getting ready for jail breaks. Our situation in Quezon City Jail has been tense since the coronavirus breached our walls in the last week of March.

We held a noise barrage that month. It used to be calmer here. No one complained even though it was unusual that many of us suffered from high fever in February and early March. One day, we found out that an empleyada tested positive for coronavirus.

That’s when paranoia kicked in.

Empleyada or empleyado, that’s how we call the jail guards. We only learned about her case through media reports. We were kept in the dark about our real situation here.

No one bothered to explain her condition to us. The jail guards left us guessing about our safety. We were left guessing about our lives. Days after the news broke, a fellow inmate died.

Nine more inmates who came in close contact with him later tested positive for the virus.

We were angry. We eventually found out that the empleyada works in the paralegal office where e-Dalaw or the inmates’ Skype sessions with their families were held.

That tells you that she came in close contact with a lot of inmates. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of us got infected. The only way to find out is through massive testing.

‘We’re dead’

An inmate who came in close contact with the empleyada was isolated as jail administrators waited for her results to come out. On the eighth day of his quarantine period, the inmate was sent back to our dorm. We don’t know why he didn’t complete 14 days in isolation. He ate with us, slept beside us. He did practically everything with us. Then the empleyada’s results came. Positive, it said. The jail guards went to our dorm and picked him up for another round of quarantine.

Most of us were in disbelief. As the inmate walked out of our dorm, it got us thinking: Are they really killing us here? Or are they just incompetent?

When I first learned of the Covid-19 infections, one thing crossed my mind: We’re dead.

We’re dead because social distancing is a UFO (unidentified flying object) here. Experts say maintaining physical distance is the best weapon against this virus. For a jail facility that’s nearly 500 percent congested, no matter how you look at it, social distancing is alien.

Let me tell you why I don’t trust their system here.

One of the quarantine facilities was on the floor reserved for tuberculosis (TB) patients. Can you imagine that? You’re breathing TB from that entire floor. If you have ordinary colds and cough, you might get tuberculosis instead of getting cured.

Now, no one wants to admit they are sick over fears that jail guards will send them to the TB floor.

How do they check us for symptoms? They ask: “Do you have cough, cold, fever or flu?” They want to know if we have diarrhea. If we answer “no” to all their questions, that’s it.

Every move, a peso sign

Usually, a plastic screen separates the jail nurse from us.

The empleyados have personal protective equipment. Not an inch of their skin is exposed while the detainees assisting them, called the orderlies, wear only face masks. The orderlies are the real first line of defense. They attend to inmates before jail nurses do.

Earlier this year, my daughter bought me two blister packs of flu medicines. They ran out before I could even take one. I had to give them to my sick dormmates because they couldn’t ask from the clinic.

Most of my dormmates had flu symptoms at that time, but I heard the clinic ran out of supplies. Sometimes, it’s hard to ask medicines from the empleyado. If you know someone from the clinic, your connection might save your life.

Otherwise, you have to buy. Every move you make requires a peso sign. You’re dead if you don’t have money, especially if you’re facing grave charges.

Receiving government provisions is like an awarding ceremony. They need photographs for the tiniest thing they give you. They give you a blister pack of vitamins, they take pictures. They give you a bar of soap, they take pictures.

They always need to take pictures as if these were trophies they would mount on walls.

But everything is a lie. They don’t take good care of us. They don’t even come near those in quarantine areas. They stay outside the bars that separate them from the inmates.

In response to that, I would reach out to grab them whenever they asked me how I felt. It always made them flinch and step backwards. It’s so funny! I do that just to see how they’d react.

I don’t feel we are being treated as humans here.

Hopeless, helpless

Inside jails, you are tormented by the thought that you can’t do anything. People want to complain but can’t. They don’t know how, and they are afraid.

Inside jails, you feel hopeless and helpless.

Hopeless because you are under their rule. It’s like a military camp. What the empleyado wants, the empleyado gets.

Helpless because there are no real safety measures. There are no standard procedures for quarantine.

This is why I decided to speak up. I want things to change – from quarantine and precautionary measures to the attitude of the empleyado nurse.

Once, a medical aide said a sick detainee needed attention. The empleyado answered back: “Bahala silang mamatay pabayaan mo lang sila (let them die).”

With that attitude from a government nurse, how will you feel?

Why are we put in such conditions?

We’re presumed innocent until proven guilty. We should not be placed in these life-threatening conditions. We still have the right to life.

Tormented

Tension between jail guards and inmates subsided when the government started releasing detainees in April. Some days they released 20 inmates, some days they released five, 10 or 38.

It’s a slow process but at least they’re doing something to address the problem.

On April 19, the jail started segregating the elderly from the general population.

Old men, like me, were taken to administrative offices previously occupied by jail personnel. One of the offices was the paralegal office! It was the office where the empleyada who tested positive for Covid-19 was assigned.

In one of the facilities, 11 people shared two gurneys and a stretcher. Sick inmates who recently died used to occupy those makeshift hospital beds. I don’t know if they have been disinfected.

After all the deaths and infections here, information remains scarce. They’re not telling us anything. Don’t we deserve to know the truth so we can also protect ourselves?

Like me, I’m already 60 years old. My immune system is weak.

For now, I take things one step at a time. I have this mindset that I will never wait for my release anymore. It will torment you if you wait for it. But at night, I sleep wishing that I can get out.

I wish I could benefit from the Supreme Court petition that was filed on behalf of detainees. When the courts sent me here earlier this year, I didn’t have colds and cough. Now I have it. I’m afraid that if they don’t do anything, I will die here in a few days.

“I think I’m Covid-19 positive as I have all the symptoms, but until now, I have never been swabbed for a test,” the jail aide said. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

B. The Jail Aide (Quezon City Jail)

We badly need mass testing. I am one of the orderlies in Quezon City Jail. The old man and I are concerned that many of us are infected with Covid-19 already.

We don’t have sufficient information about what’s happening. They’re not telling us anything. I don’t know why. Maybe, they don’t want us to panic?

In March or February, we ran out of paracetamol after detainees with fever inundated the clinic.

Our Covid-19 prevention measures are also terrible! I’m one of those who assist jail doctors and nurses in the clinic. Those I work with are protected with proper medical equipment. Me? I attend to patients wearing only a glove and a face mask to protect myself.

In April, they relieved me of my duties when I went down with high fever. I really thought I would die. I had convulsions. I’ve been in quarantine ever since.

I think I’m Covid-19 positive as I have all the symptoms, but until now, I have never been swabbed for a test.

No physical distance

They placed me in isolation together with other sick inmates, which meant that if I had the virus, other inmates would catch it too.

Because it’s impossible to maintain physical distance, our line of defense against coronavirus is our immune system.

Even that is far-fetched.

Why? Because our food is terrible. Sometimes, we have longganisa (native sausage) for lunch for five straight days. For dinner, they always serve soup with vegetable. Sometimes our rice supply is half-cooked. Sometimes it’s burnt.

With lack of proper food and exercise, boosting our immune system is next to impossible.

“The truth is, many of us are sick,” the convict said. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

C. The Convict (New Bilibid Prison)

More people are dying in New Bilibid Prison every day. It is as if there’s a typhoon of dead bodies raining all over us.

This May, more than 100 inmates died. That number is unprecedented. It’s the first time I have seen something like that since I arrived here 20 years ago.

Many of them died of pneumonia and other respiratory problems. However, there were no tests that would confirm them as Covid-19 patients.

We are scared of many things. We are scared of contracting the virus, but we are also scared of getting thrown inside isolation wards.

Prison doctors will isolate you if they think you have symptoms. We don’t want to be in further isolation. This fear prompts inmates to lie about their real health condition. The truth is, many of us are sick.

The NBP has three camps: the maximum, medium, and minimum security compounds. The isolation areas are located inside these facilities. They are different from the newly built “Site Harry” where Covid-19-positive patients from the Bureau of Corrections were put in quarantine or treated. Site Harry is located beside the medium security camp.

We are scared but we can’t do anything. Gang bosses might wring our necks if we complain. Speak up and face the risk of being locked up in a bartolina (isolation cell).

We have to wear masks wherever we go. Prison guards and gang leaders are strictly implementing this policy outside our dorms.

Ironically, we can remove our masks inside our dorms during bedtime. Covid-19 must be having a grand time inside our walls!

‘Their lives matter’

There’s no way to gauge what’s plaguing us, for sure. There’s no massive testing among inmates for the virus that has already killed one of us.

I can only assume.

Uncertainty is our enemy. Only one thing is clear to me: NBP is not Covid-19-free and we may contract the virus anytime. Dying of Covid-19 seems only a matter of time.

We are scared for the prison guards, too. They also need attention. They need to be tested, and tested rigorously.

Should guards die, they would be called heroes. The government would hail them as frontliners who risked their lives for public safety. Their lives matter.

But when we, the inmates, die, we will be reduced to nothing but ashes that our families can retrieve from crematoriums for a hefty price of P30,000.

We know that the virus is a problem everywhere. All we’re asking for is a health care system that caters to everyone, including us.

We’re humans too. #

***

Postscript:

A spokesman for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) confirmed to the PCIJ that the female staff of Quezon City Jail who tested positive for Covid-19 was part of the “e-Dalaw operation,” but said her participation was limited to planning the inmates’ schedules. Detainees held a noise barrage after finding out that the empleyada had caught the disease, but the “commotion” was pacified and jail staff and inmates have since maintained open communication with each other, the spokesman claimed.

The BJMP did not respond to queries on whether suspected Covid-19 cases were isolated on the same floor as tuberculosis patients. –PCIJ, June 2020

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.

Alexandra Paredes is a graphic designer and artist. Her design practice spans social impact, corporate collaterals, teaching, writing, and commissioned art. Find her online at alexandraparedes.com.

Paredes’s illustrations are fictional representations of the old man, the jail aide, and the convict. These are artistic renderings inspired by PCIJ file photos of prisoners.

2 detained babies and their mothers arrive back in PH

The two babies detained by Malaysian immigration officers in Kuala Lumpur arrived back in the Philippines with their mothers Wednesday night, ending nearly three weeks of ordeal in a foreign jail.

Arriving at the Manila International Airport on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH804 at 9:40 in the evening the babies, both of whom are under two years old, looked exhausted, Migrante International said in a statement.

“After spending weeks trembling in fear and torment, they are relieved to finally get back home and be reunited with their loved ones. The four children were clearly gripped by exhaustion,” Migrante reported

With them are two other toddlers, both under five years old, and their mothers, who were also detained at the Bukit Jalil Jail in the Malaysian capital, the group added.

Migrante said the four mother-child pairs appeared unsure after stepping out of the airport terminal and were relieved when approached by their staff and Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM) volunteers who introduced themselves as colleagues of Malaysian migrant center Tenaganita that campaigned for their release.

“With almost all of their belongings looted by wardens and immigration officers at Bukit Jalil, they only managed to carry with them small shoulder bags,” Migrante said in a statement.

WHAT WENT BEFORE: Malaysian immigration holds 2 Pinoy babies ‘under tormenting conditions’

The mothers and their children upon arrival at the NAIA late Wednesday night. (Migrante International photo)

Horrific ordeal

The deported mothers revealed they suffered humiliation under the hands of their Bukit Jalil Immigration Detention Centre custodians.

Ralyn (not her real name) said they underwent routine inspections every five minutes by “barking detention wardens and spiteful immigration officers” from 7AM to 12AM midnight the next day everyday.

Detainees were fed with “stale and burnt food good for swines,” she told Migrante.  

Enny and Anita (real names withheld) also told Migrante that their cells were “cramped and filthy.”

The detainees said they were made to lie down on the cold floor surface and nobody was allowed to use any sleeping mats.

Detainees had only one set of clothes which they had to wash and wear every other day, the mothers told Migrante.

“Our rights as humans were violated! The female wardens acted as if they are not mothers themselves. They were vile and mean, treated us like animals. All the children always get terrified when they’re around,” Raly told Migrante.  

The mothers complained that non-married or single detainees are constantly in handcuffs and any detainee inside the facility that is seen by immigration wardens as misbehaving is dealt with severely.

They recalled how a female detainee from Kenya who has been showing signs of psychosis was tied to the wall with both hands and was made to stand the whole day. 

Even the children are not spared from verbal abuse by growling wardens and immigration officers, the detainees said, adding many of the young detainees were in need of medical attention.

“Almost all of the detainees are from poor countries,” Anita told Migrante.

According to Ralyn, most of their fellow detainees are from countries like Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Kenya and Nigeria. 

Malaysian Immigration Department director-general Datuk Khairul Dzaimee Daud, for his part, said his office provided “basic facilities” for the children detained at the centre and showed Malaysian reporters of children playing at the detention centre’s nursery.

Successful campaign

The Filipinos homecoming was started by Tenaganita whose press statements triggered an outcry for the release of the babies.

“[Our] press statement triggered a blast of anger and outrage from the Malaysian Public, Member of Parliaments and some Ministers who are our allies in the New Government,” Tenaganita executive director Glorene Dass told Kodao.

Dass said that both mainstream and alternative journalists in Malaysia, some of whom are Filipinos, picked up the story and published Tenaganita’s articles on the plight of the young detainees.

They also kept calling the immigrations authorities for statements, she said.

The social media scene was also lit up by the campaign “that helped tremendously,” Dass added.

Tenaganita, Migrante International and CWWM are active members of the International Migrants Alliance.

Uncertain future

When asked for their future plans, the mothers told Migrante that going back overseas is still in the offing since they are not expecting to get decent paying jobs in the Philippines. 

“Coming back to the Philippines presents the same problems of instability and peril to returning OFWs and migrant children,” Migrante International chairperson Joanna Concepcion said. 

Migrante said the all but one of the mothers and their children boarded provincial buses headed to their respective hometowns in Bataan and Laguna.

Ralyn chose to stay overnight in Manila at a place offered to her by CWWM before travelling to Bulacan this morning, Migrante said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Ladlad, Villamors suffering from maltreatment

National Democratic Front of the Philippines peace consultant Vicente Ladlad and companions are suffering from maltreatment in Camp Karingal, his wife complained in an “emergency bulletin.”

Ladlad’s wife Fides Lim announced on her Facebook account that Ladlad and his companion Alberto Villamor were “suddenly ordered transferred to a small, congested prison cell for detainees accused of common crimes at the Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit (CIDU), Quezon City police headquarters.”

Prior to the transfer, Ladlad and Villamor were detained in separate headquarters from common crime offenders after their arrest last November 8.

Ladlad, 69, suffers from acute and chronic asthma that has degenerated to emphysema in addition to a heart condition, Lim said.

Lim said there are 38 male detainees in Ladlad and Villamor’s current prison cell, measuring around 20 square meters.

“The room is so overcrowded that inmates have to take turns sleeping on the floor. Only around 20 prisoners can lie down at a time. They have to sleep on their side to fit in more sleeping bodies into that cramped floor space,” Lim said.

In between them, others have to stand up or sit down. To relieve the congestion during nighttime, sometimes ten prisoners are allowed to sleep at the office area outside the prison cell, she added.

She also complained that cramped as the area is, the “main” floor area of the prison cell is reserved as sleeping space primarily for those who personally contribute for weekly food expenses since there are no food rations for the prisoners.

“Despite the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners requiring access to fresh air and sunning, for two whole days now, Vic and Alberto have not been allowed to go out of their congested cell,” Lim said.

‘World’s most crowded’

Philippine jails have been reported to be the world’s most crowded.

“A humanitarian crisis is facing the Philippine corrections. The Philippine National Police (PNP) detention centers, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) and provincial jails, and the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) prisons are not only full to the brim, they are teeming with emaciated and disease-carrying bodies,” a Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism article reported last July.

“On June 30, 2016, upon assumption of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the country, the BJMP population stood at 96,000 inmates or Persons Deprived of Liberties (PDLs). Now, two years and three State of the Nation Addresses (SONA) after, the BJMP population stands at 160,000 PDLs. That is a staggering growth of 64 percent in two years,” the article, written by Dr. Raymund Narag, a professor at the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice of the Southern Illinois University said.

“We are now officially the most overcrowded correctional facilities in the whole world: our 605-percent congestion rate is far ahead of Haiti’s 320 percent, the second most crowded,” the article added.

The situation has worsened Ladlad’s health condition, Lim said.

“He has been having palpitations and compelled to take his ‘emergency’ medicines to avoid getting sicker,” she explained.

Lim also said that the Villamors are also suffering from their prison condition.

Panic attacks

“[Alberto] is diabetic requiring insulin and is just recovering from his second stroke that occurred last April 2018,” Lim said.

Virginia Villamor, wife of Alberto who was arrested along with the two is also suffering from trauma resulting from the raid and arrest, Lim added.

“She is given to uncontrollable trembling at night and cries and cries whenever she remembers how the arresting team forced her to lie face down on the floor,” Lim said.

She added that Virginia’s pelvic fracture, which occurred when she was bumped by a tricycle, was aggravated when the police pushed her down to the floor during the raid.

“The injury now makes it difficult for her to stand up,” Lim said.

Lim said that when the three were kept in one room, Virginia constantly called on husband Alberto to talk to her so she can sleep.

“Her transfer to the women’s prison cell and consequent separation from Alberto have worsened her emotional state. She is on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” Lim said.

Lim demanded that the CIDU stop reprisal actions being committed against Ladlad and the Villamors as well as proper medical attention and treatment for the three.

She added that human rights lawyers have filed a motion before the Quezon City Office of the City Prosecutor and Manila RTC Branch 32 to immediately transfer the three to the Metro Manila District Jail 4 (formerly known as SICA-1) in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig, where other political prisoners are being held. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Armed detainees engage in hostile takeover of Indonesian high security prison

A prison riot involving forty convicted terrorists is currently unfolding in Depok, a West Javan city adjacent to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

The riot began on Tuesday evening local time at Mobile Brigade Command Headquarters (Mako Brimob), a high security prison whose inmates include those convicted of terrorism.

According to official reports, a standoff occurred as a result of a simple misunderstanding over food between one inmate and a member of Densus 88, Indonesia’s counter-terrorism squad. The situation escalated quickly as the inmate incited others to action, took officers hostage, and managed to access the prison’s arms reserves.

Five Densus 88 officers were reported dead, while one was released after being taken hostage for more than 24 hours.

Detainees’ questionable motives

Through its propaganda outlet, the group ISIS claimed involvement in the incident. The Indonesian police have denied the group’s claim.

Most of the detainees belonged to JAD, a group designated terrorist by the US government.

Analyst Sydney Jones from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflicts (IPAC)was quoted as saying that pro-ISIS detainees have constantly caused trouble at the high security prison.

According to Indonesian terrorism analyst Al Chaidar, the riot wasn’t premeditated, but the motive could be vengeance against the authorities, who raided cells to conviscate smuggled mobile phones and copies of the Koran.

Hashtag solidarity on Twitter

On Twitter, Indonesians are using the hashtag #KamiBersamaPolri (We’re supporting the National Police) to send condolences to the relatives of the fallen officers and encourage the nation to stand firm against terrorism.

Image from Global Voices report.

(Juke Carolina/Global Voices)