IN NUMBERS: The inmates of New Bilibid Prison

Rambo Talabong

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Here's a snapshot of the Philippines' controversial national penitentiary, the New Bilibid Prison

MANILA, Philippines – In the show that is the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), the infamous are the stars.

The stellar cast includes drug lords, crime kingpins, serial killers, kidnappers, and rapists. 

But these celebrities seldom come out of the shadows.

They only enter the public view when a fiasco befalls the prison’s administration: the tilting of the spotlight towards these inmates’ tolerated high life, the alleged waltz of high officials with the top dogs of the jailhouse, the deadly riots that turn their stage bloody red.

But the story of Bilibid is more than these Grade A convicts.

Usually left in the margins is the massive ensemble of nameless inmates, thousands who are also living their sentences behind the prison’s concrete curtains ever since 1940.

According to data obtained by Rappler, the NBP already houses 26,877 convicted criminals as of May 2018. For the many different crimes they committed, they share many things in common.

The numbers tell their story.

Numbers in context: The BuCor tallies inmates from both Calabarzon (Region IV-A) and Mimaropa (Region IV-B) as coming from a singular Region IV. This is because the bureau still has not revised its recording system prior to the division of the Southern Tagalog regions in 2002.

It is not surprising that most inmates come from the Southern Tagalog and Metro Manila, as the NBP is the closest to these regions. For housing criminals from other areas, the BuCor has regional corrections facilities or “penal colonies” to take in high-security inmates.

Numbers in context: Chinese inmates form more than half of the foreign population of the NBP, which stands at 268. Many of the most celebrated inmates who serve time in Bilibid, in fact, are Chinese, like Peter Co and Vicente Sy.

Co and Sy, along with 5 other members of the so-called “Bilibid 19,” have since been taken out of Bilibid after testifying against former Justice Secretary and now detained Senator Leila de Lima.

Ever since the Chinese big fish were transferred to military hands, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency reported a turnover of leadership to new and yet unnamed Chinese drug kingpins.

Numbers in context: Almost half or 43.6% of Bilibid inmates were convicted for crimes against persons, which comprises of murder, homicide, and physical injury. It is followed by crimes against chastity, which includes rape and sexual assault. Conviction for crimes against illegal drugs only stands at number 3.

These top 3 crimes in Bilibid are the offenses which the Duterte administration seeks to stamp out with its aggressive anti-illegal drugs and criminality campaign.

The takeaway: Most Bilibid inmates are middle-aged, with 9 in every ten belonging to the 22 to 39 and 40 to 59 age groups. The rest are a few hundred adolescents and young adults and a little over a dozen hundred senior inmates.

Solo (43%) and coupled inmates (42.8%), meanwhile, almost equal each other in numbers.

The takeaway: Only one in every 10 Bilibid convicts have been able to enroll in college (10.1%). Most were only able to attend classes in elementary but failed to graduate (31%).

Still, the penitentiary has a soaring 96% literacy rate, not far from the 97.5% grade of the entire Philippines recorded by the National Statistics Office.

The takeaway: The population in Bilibid roughly reflects the country’s predominantly Catholic population. 8 in every 10 inmates are Catholics (79.55%), mirroring the record of the Philippine Statistics Authority in 2010 that 80.3% of Filipinos believe in Catholicism.

One in every 10 inmates are believers of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), while other faithfuls such as Muslims (3.6%) and Protestants (2.7%)  make up the rest. Based on the PSA’s 2010 data, 5.5% of all Filipinos are Muslim, 2.6% are Protestants, while 2.4% are INC.

Numbers in context: One would expect that only a few would need maximum security in a national penitentiary. In Bilibid, high security inmates make up the bulk of the population (68.3%). This is because the prison has become the preferred detention facility for inmates committing high crimes.

Those evaluated to deserve maximum security are inmates who are serving a life sentence, and are facing multiple cases, sentences, and convictions of more than 20 years. Those serving less than 20 years are supposed to be placed in the medium security compound, also known as the Sampaguita Compound, and the minimum security compound.

Not all classifications are immediately enforced. There are inmates who stay in the Reception and Diagnostic Center, a facility inside the Maximum Security Compound meant to house new inmates. There, they are oriented by jail officials how life inside the penitentiary works.

The takeaway: Most of the Bilibid’s high-security inmates used to hold low-income jobs before becoming prisoners. Around 36% of inmates used to be farmers or gardeners and 27% used to work as crafts and trade laborers before they were convicted of heinous crimes.

The numbers only make sense as most inmates did not get a chance to earn a college diploma while they were free.

More than the plots of dead inmates that are buried inside the compound, the story told by numbers of the infamous and the unsung living within the fortified walls of the New Bilibid Prison mirrors that of Philippine society. –

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.