KAPATID appeals for release of low-level offenders, elderly, sick prisoners amid coronavirus outbreak

Jodesz Gavilan
KAPATID appeals for release of low-level offenders, elderly, sick prisoners amid coronavirus outbreak
'This is not only an urgent matter of life and death but also of justice,' KAPATID spokesperson Fides Lim writes in an open letter to the Duterte administration

MANILA, Philippines – Families of political prisoners appeal to the Duterte administration to mass release inmates and detainees inside congested facilities in the face of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the Philippines. 

In an open letter, KAPATID spokesperson Fides Lim said that the government should adopt the “Iran solution” for Philippine prisons as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increases by the day. 

Iran said it will temporarily release 54,000 people from prisons in a bid to stop the spread of virus. 

According to KAPATID, prisoners who are low-level offenders, elderlies, sick, and “accidental victims of political arrests,” among others, should be released.

“This is not only an urgent matter of life and death but also of justice,” Lim said, adding that the group is ready to cooperate and dialogue with authorities to move forward with the proposal. 

The Philippines’ prison system has long been the picture of overcrowded facilities, and groups are afraid that the dire situation will make persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) vulnerable to the coronavirus. 

As of January 2020, the Bureau of Corrections has a 310% congestion rate, with 49,114 PDLs scattered across its 7 facilities that only have a total maximum capacity of 11,981. 

Data from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) as of October 2019, meanwhile, shows that 380 out of its 467 jails are congested, posing a 450% congestion rate which translates to 6 detainees occupying space only meant for one. 

As of Saturday, March 14, the Department of Health (DOH) confirmed a total of 111 cases in the country, with 8 people dying so far. 

“While we recognize the health basis for the lockdown of jails, we maintain that NO prison is a closed environment because prison personnel come and go inside the facilities, exposing the already most vulnerable to the spread of infection,” Lim said. 

Below is the full open letter, with emphases provided by Kapatid.

OPEN LETTER OF APPEAL FOR AN “IRAN SOLUTION” FOR PHILIPPINE PRISONS 

To:
Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea
Department of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra
Bureau of Corrections Director General Gerald Bantag 
Bureau of Jail Management and Penology Director Allan Iral

The Philippine prison system has the highest congestion rate in the world at 605%. Overcrowded cells and the direst lack of the barest essentials for health—nutritious food, clean drinking water, adequate medical care, and even soap—have resulted in steep death rates in the country’s 933 prisons that house a total population of 188,278 inmates, where 75.1% are pre-trial detainees.

The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), which supervises jails for those undergoing investigation and trial, said its death rate is 300 to 800 inmates a year. This means 1 to 2 prisoners die every day in BJMP jails. The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) said about 20% percent of the 26,000 inmates at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), Muntinlupa die annually, a situation which the NBP hospital head during Senate hearings last October described as “critical” when compared to global standards. The BuCor says this amounts to 1 death every day at the NBP but the BuCor’s own figures in fact indicate that 5,200 inmates at the NBP die every year or 14 every day.

GIVEN THE HIGH CONGESTION AND MORTALITY RATES OF THE PRISON SYSTEM, SHOULD THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT WAIT BEFORE THE DEADLY COVID-19 UNLEASHES EVEN MORE CATASTROPHIC CONSEQUENCES INSIDE PHILIPPINE JAILS?

KAPATID, the support organization of political prisoners in the Philippines, calls on the national government to immediately adopt the IRAN SOLUTION wherein the Iranian government has been releasing en masse thousands of prisoners to control the rising death toll from the new coronavirus. As of March 9, the Iranian government has already released 70,000 prisoners. Meantime, we cannot turn a blind eye to the prison riots spreading in Italy as prisoners in desperation decry the impact of the lockdown on prison facilities, which they fear puts their lives in greater danger of contamination because of poor prison conditions.

KAPATID appeals to the Philippine government, in particular the Office of the President, the Department of Justice, the BuCor and the BJMP, to initiate immediate steps for the MASS RELEASE of low-level offenders as in the Iran example, plus the very elderly and the very sick, the accidental victims of political arrests or what GRP Peace Panel head Sec. Silvestre Bello terms as “riders” (sabit), and one spouse from each of the ten political prisoner couples to allow one to care for the other and many of whom are also mere “riders” in political arrests. 

We are ready to dialogue with you at the soonest time. The regulations, mechanics, and procedure for this forward measure, whether on temporary release as in the Iran solution, can be defined by the Department of Justice as the lead agency. As we have proposed, the KAPATID network of support from among university human rights centers and legal and paralegal volunteers can readily be harnessed to immediately fast-track this effort to secure the lives of Filipino prisoners. 

This is not only an urgent matter of life and death but also of justice. Let us note the Supreme Court’s own data of a 71.77% judicial error rate on death penalty cases—wrongful convictions by courts, affecting especially prisoners belonging to the lowest socioeconomic class. A Free Legal Assistance Group study also reports a high judicial error rate of illegal arrests, ranging from 73% to 90%. This simply means that over half of the prison population should not even be in jail because of the broken judicial system. And they especially include the 601 political prisoners, who are victims of manufactured charges such as planted firearms and explosives and baseless common crimes designed to criminalize them and lock them up in indefinite detention.   

KAPATID likewise appeals to the BuCor and BJMP to immediately and regularly supply prisoners with soap to help battle COVID-19, ensure clean water especially drinking water and nutritious food, and immediately upgrade health facilities, resources, and protocols, especially the number of medical doctors and nurses and the provision of medicines as well as maintenance medicines for prisoners with chronic illnesses. 

While we recognize the health basis for the lockdown of jails, we maintain that NO prison is a closed environment because prison personnel come and go inside the facilities, exposing the already most vulnerable to the spread of infection. We thus press the BuCor and the BJMP to (1) adopt procedures per prison facility to allow families of political prisoners and common prisoners to pass on maintenance medicines, soap and detergent, and food to help our loved ones SURVIVE this public health crisis, and (2) issue regular bulletins about the status of prisoners, including political prisoners who are particularly most vulnerable because of repeated measures singling them out for harassment.  

Yet we stress, only a forward-looking strategy like the Iran solution of MASS RELEASE of prisoners as enumerated can protect congested, ill-equipped prisons from the rapid spread of COVID-19. Implement this NOW, please, before more lives are exposed and succumb to its contagion.     

For KAPATID,
FIDES LIM
Spokesperson

Email: kapatid.pp@gmail.com 

– Rappler.com

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.