De Lima urges Anti-COVID-19 task force to release qualified detainees


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Through an open letter, opposition Senator Leila M. de Lima called the attention of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), to also consider the welfare of PDLs (Persons Deprived of Liberty) that have a higher risk of contracting the highly contagious COVID-19 due to the overcrowding of jails and detention centers in the country.

De Lima penned the letter after the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights (UNCHR) and the World Health Organization urged governments “not to forget those behind bars” and to protect those working in closed facilities in their overall efforts to contain the pandemic.

“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 practically luxuries that our PDLs cannot afford,” she said.

“Given the state of our jails and prisons, the infection rate will be catastrophic. We thus offer a solution: decongest our jails and prisons through a systematic release of qualified PDLs on humanitarian grounds,” she stressed.

As the COVID-19 paralyzed many nations around the world, many governments have made arrangements to release detainees, adhering to calls of both local and foreign human rights organizations.

UNHRC Commissioner Michelle Bachelet was quoted to have said that “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.”

Last March 17, Iran has released more than 85,000 prisoners and detainees as the coronavirus crisis escalated in the region and as repeated riots has threatened prison security.

Similarly, the Indonesian government has committed to release around 30,000 prisoners “to avoid a possible surge in coronavirus infections in its overcrowded prisons”.

Other nations, including the United States of America, Canada, Germany, Britain, Poland, Italy, Sri Lanka, and Yemen, among others, are also taking and considering similar measures to decongest their jails.

De Lima, a former justice secretary, urged the IATF-EID to follow the lead of these nations to release detainees and inmates that meet certain qualifications, to wit:

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

De Lima also noted that those who will be considered for an early release should also meet qualifications under the Enrile Doctrine (Enrile vs. Sandiganbayan, August 2015) where “that the detainee will not be a flight risk or a danger to the community; and that there exist special, humanitarian and compelling circumstances.”

“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,” she said.

However, the lady Senator from Bicol emphasized that those who have been detained or convicted of heinous crimes should not be included for consideration for early release.

De Lima pointed out that 2019 and 2020 data from both the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), shows a congestion rate of 349% and 441%, respectively.

She also noted that the World Prison Brief database ranked the Philippines as “highest in the world in jail occupancy rate” according to their latest report.

“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,” De Lima said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the quality of living and economy of the Philippines, particularly areas under lockdown, including the whole island of Luzon and select other regions in the country.

As of March 31, there have been 88 reported deaths due to complications caused by the coronavirus disease, while 2,084 others have been tested positive.

Globally, the COVID-19 has an estimated 4.85% mortality rate, with more than 750,000 confirmed cases, which resulted to more than 36,500 deaths. (30)

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