476 convicts die in BuCor custody in 7 months

Over the last 7 months, or from January to July 19, 2020, a total of 476 convicts died in the custody of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor).

"Per BuCor data, a total of 476 Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) died from COVID and non-COVID causes during the period January-July 19, 2020," Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told Rappler in a text message on Tuesday, July 21.

There are 21 convicts who were confirmed to have died of COVID-19, according to BuCor chief Gerald Bantag as cited by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in a statement Monday, July 20. BuCor is an attached agency of the DOJ.

"Bantag nevertheless assured the Secretary that the health situation within the BuCor is under control. To date, there are only 5 PDLs in isolation at Site Harry," said the DOJ.

The DOJ did not provide a breakdown of the 476 deaths, but based on a list earlier obtained by Rappler, 222 died in the New Bilibid Prison from January to April: 47 in January, 55 in February, 60 in March, and 60 in April.

The other 254 deaths were spread across May to July 19.

Documents obtained by Rappler show that 134 convicts died in Bilibid in May alone. (READ: Concern over deaths in Bilibid mounts in the face of the pandemic)

Citing close montly averages from October to December 2019, BuCor Spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag told Rappler in an earlier interview that around 60 deaths a month is normal for a population like Bilibid's.

"That is normal sa population nila dito. Saan ka ba nakakuha ng isang bayan na walang namamatay sa population na 20,000-plus (That is normal for our population here. Is there a town with a population of more than 20,000 with no deaths)?"  Chaclag said in an earlier interview. 

Based on the latest data of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), the national crude death rate is 6 deaths per 1,000 population per year in 2018.

Rappler's own calculation based on BuCor's monthly death records since October 2019 shows that in the last 8 months, Bilibid's death rate has been 26 deaths per 1,000 population per year. This is more than 4 times the national crude death rate.

Unclear causes of death, not tested

Documents obtained by Rappler show that dozens of convicts have been dying without clear causes of death since April. In the list, deaths have varying labels such as "dead on arrival (DOA)," "to consider COVID," "DOA for autopsy" or "DOA to consider COVID."

There were a dozen other convicts who died in May whose causes of death were listed as either "to consider pneumonia" or "to consider myocardial infraction" or heart attack.

Sudden deaths are not tested for the coronavirus, following a Department of Health (DOH) protocol to reserve test kits for people who are alive.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said this indicates limited testing for prisoners, and that there should have been enough lead time to test them the moment they get sick.

"It appears to show that prisoners do not have equal access to appropriate COVID testing," Human Rights Commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit told Rappler in an earlier interview.

In light of the controversial deaths of high-profile inmates like Leila de Lima case witness Jaybee Sebastian, whom BuCor said died of COVID-19 but had to be cremated within 12 hours, there have been calls for a full investigation into prison conditions.

Rappler obtained a memorandum dated June from BuCor chief doctor Henry Fabro who explained that the Bilibid hospital has been operating at only 35% capacity because it was undergoing construction even before the pandemic hit.

But Fabro said in that memorandum that they had hired 2 medical officers and 10 registered nurses "to help us implement our health programs in NBP hospital and Site Harry Isolation compound."

"It may be timely to check whether or not our prisons comply with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners  and adequately achieves the objectives of deterrence, restraint, reformation, retribution, and restoration," Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) national president Domingo "Egon" Cayosa said in a message on Tuesday. (READ: Secrecy shrouds the Bureau of Corrections)

Interim measures

Guevarra said he has ordered Bantag "to ensure the presence of a Department of Health (DOH) representative during the conduct of swab tests within their facilities."

Rappler had also spoken to relatives of dead convicts who complained about the lack of notice from BuCor, saying that they found out about their relatives' deaths through second-hand information.

Guevarra said he has also ordered BuCor "to exert greater efforts to immediately notify the members of deceased inmates’ families prior to cremation." – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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