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1 April 2020

Dear IATF Members,


We thank you for your continuous service and sacrifice. It goes without saying that spearheading the fight against COVID-19 is a monumental, and often thankless, undertaking. In these trying times, all our efforts are never enough. Yet this humble representation is here to ask a little bit more of you.

I write in behalf of our persons deprived of liberty (PDLs).

The current crisis situation gave rise to quarantine and social or physical distancing protocols to minimize, if not totally avoid, the transmission of COVID-19: maintain a distance of one meter to other people, regularly wash hands with soap and running water, wear face masks, disinfect living areas, and consult doctors if one experiences any of the known symptoms. These are simple enough measures that many people take for granted. However, these are practically luxuries that our PDLs cannot afford.

The Senate hearings on the state of our jails and prisons have opened the eyes of many of us on the sorry conditions under which our PDLs are incarcerated. The food is barely enough that our PDLs cannot worry about nutrition as they have to prioritize basic nourishment. There is hardly any water to drink, even less for keeping good hygiene. There is not enough space in our detention center for our PDLs to sleep in; and it is virtually impossible for them to observe social or physical distancing guidelines.

Even more worrisome is the capacity of the health facilities that cater to our jails and prisons. According to the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), we only have 13 doctors nationwide, four of which are stationed in the New Bilibid Prisons (NBP), along with 40 nurses. According to inmates, the NBP Hospital does not even have working showers, and that inmates in the hospital are only given one hour in the morning and afternoon to clean themselves using water collected in drums.

The sorry state of healthcare in our jails and prisons has led to an average of a staggering 5,200 deaths per year in NBP, while the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) estimates the annual deaths to be around 500 to 800.

With the number of arrests and detentions piling up, even during the Enhanced Community Quarantine, and persons, including BuCor and BJMP officials and personnel, presumably still going in and out of our jails and prisons on a regular basis, it is only a matter of time before COVID-19 infects our PDLs. Given the state of our jails and prisons, the infection rate will be catastrophic. It might even lead to prison riots and similar violent incidents.

We thus offer a solution: decongest our jails and prisons through a systematic release of qualified PDLs on humanitarian grounds.

As of January 2020, there are 49,114 prisoners under the care of BuCor. Of the total, 28,885 or 58.8% are at NBP, beyond its capacity of 6,435 prisoners. As a result, NBP has a capacity rate of 449 percent and congestion rate of 349%, according to BuCor data.

On the other hand, as of March 2019, the BJMP accommodates 136,881 PDLs, even as the 476 jail facilities managed by the bureau nationwide can only cater to almost 31,000 PDLs. The percentage of congestion in jail facilities in the country for early 2019 is at 441.74% according to BJMP. The most congested are the city jails within the National Capital Region (NCR).

According to World Prison Brief database, the Philippines was ranked highest in the world in jail occupancy rate in their latest report.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged governments “not to forget those behind bars” and to protect those working in closed facilities in their overall efforts to contain the pandemic.

“In many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible,” she added.

In a statement released last 25 March 2020, the UN High Commissioner stressed the need for governments and relevant authorities “to work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention, noting several countries have already undertaken some positive actions. Authorities should examine ways to release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, among them older detainees and those who are sick, as well as low-risk offenders. They should also continue to provide for the specific health-care requirements of women prisoners, including those who are pregnant, as well as those of inmates with disabilities and of juvenile detainees.”

Earlier this year, the Iranian government has temporarily released 85,000 prisoners in an emergency move to stop the spread of COVID-19.

We recommend that similar efforts be made in order to decongest our prisons and jails by releasing persons based on certain standards that would have minimal impact on the level of criminality in our communities.

We recommend that we release our PDLs in the following order of priority:

  1. Elder PDLs – 70 years old and above
  2. PDLs with serious illness or disability
  3. PDLs detained, pre-conviction, for minor non-violent offenses
  4. PDLs convicted for minor non-violent crimes

The IATF is urged to enter into an agreement with the Supreme Court to waive the requirement of posting bail for identified PDLs who are still detained pre-conviction, and release them on their own recognizance.

Convicted elder PDLs, as well as those with serious illness or disability, may be granted medical parole or have their sentences commuted based on humanitarian grounds. They are wards of the State and are most at risk for COVID-19-related death. It would be best if they can be released to their families who will be able to provide for them the best possible care.

The final group, comprised of PDLs convicted for minor non-violent crimes, should comprise the next wave of releases that demands closer scrutiny and greater efforts from our public officials in the BuCor and BJMP. While this tranche of release would be made for humanitarian reasons, this is likewise intended to drastically decongest our detention centers. The release may be done by parole or commutation of sentence.

Those detained for or convicted of heinous crimes shall NOT be included for consideration for early release.

If done properly, we would be able to free up additional resources to improve the nutrition and sanitation in the jails and prisons for the remaining PDLs. This will also ease some pressure on the jail and prison health care facilities.

Art. 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “[a]ll persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Our PDLs deserve to be treated with humanity and equal worth as human beings. They, too, deserve our regards in times of crises and calamities. While our government prepares our country for the worst effects of COVID-19, we should also consider giving the PDLs even the bare minimum of fighting chance against the said contagion.

The Supreme Court stated in the case of Enrile v. Sandiganbayan (G.R. No. 213847, August 18, 2015) that the “national commitment to uphold the fundamental human rights as well as value the worth and dignity of every person has authorized the grant of bail not only to those charged in criminal proceedings but also to extraditees upon a clear and convincing showing: (1) that the detainee will not be a flight risk or a danger to the community; and (2) that there exist special, humanitarian and compelling circumstances.”

Following this ruling, we must be mindful in upholding the rights of our PDLs under special, humanitarian and compelling circumstances. If our country is willing to spend almost half-trillion pesos in funds in order to address the current pandemic, we should also be willing to offer some concession for our PDLs, even if it is only to protect them from the possibly fatal effects of COVID-19 by giving those deserving the opportunity to be freed from the harsh conditions in our jails and prisons.

In the words of our Lord in Matthew 25:40, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Our Lord’s gratitude is extended to those who provide kindness to the least of us. May our IATF spare a thought for our PDLs in these trying times.

Dios Mabalos!


Office of Senator Leila de Lima
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