Fixing the Bureau of Corrections: Government walks a tightrope

Lian Buan, Rambo Talabong, Jodesz Gavilan
Conclusion: The GCTA crisis is a symptom of an institutional problem inside the Bureau of Corrections. Will a Duterte-style approach work?

READ: Part 1 | Bilibid returnees die in Duterte administration blunders Part 2 | Unqualified GCTA returnees lose jobs, are detained for months Part 3 | Bantag tries to slay Bilibid’s old monsters, Duterte-style

AT A GLANCE

  • There is legal pushback to the government’s crackdown on heinous crimes, as inmates start to file cases before courts to regain their freedom.
  • Agencies pitch their own solutions: a matter of organizational change for DOJ, but radical change for PNP and PDEA.
  • BuCor chief Gerald Bantag continues to shock as he floats wiretapping of prisoners’ phones
  • Neglect of our prisons also reflects the values we hold as Filipinos

MANILA, Philippines – Christopher de Veluz pleaded guilty and was convicted of rape in 2002. He was sentenced to 14 to 16 years.

He served 14 years, 7 months, and 15 days at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) before he was freed on March 13, 2016. His Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) computation deducted 912 days from his sentence.

He had returned to civil society, worked as a call center agent, and then later a plumber in the family business in his hometown in Lucban, Quezon province. That is, until September 10, 2019, when police officers knocked on their home ala tokhang (knock and plead to surrender) and forced him to return to Bilibid based on President Rodrigo Duterte’s verbal order to haul back to jail all heinous crime convicts like him who had benefited from the GCTA law or Republic Act 10592.

De Veluz was among the 2,352 convicts who returned to prison since September out of fear of Duterte’s shoot-to-kill threat.

A total of 827 returnees have been set free, but De Veluz is not one of them, as he faces a bleak prospect of staying in jail a little while longer.

“The process is still ongoing but we think that probably a good number of the remaining surrenderers will be re-incarcerated,” Department of Justice (DOJ) deputy spokesperson Neal Bainto told Rappler.

De Veluz’s brother Richard has sued Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Gerald Bantag through a petition for the writ of habeas corpus (produce the body) seeking to compel the prisons chief to “immediately release” the previously freed convict. It is up for decision at the Court of Appeals (CA).

De Veluz’s petition is one among the many cases filed against the government since the DOJ revised the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the GCTA law that removed heinous crime convicts from among its beneficiaries.

Failed bureaucracy

Bantag, the DOJ, and their lawyers from the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) would have to defend this position in these cases, on top of a pending Supreme Court petition that wants to declare the justice department’s IRR revision unconstitutional.

This all happened because the aborted release of notorious rapist and murderer Antonio Sanchez exposed not only very flawed record-keeping by BuCor, but corruption in granting GCTAs.

It does not help that the GCTA system is prone to abuse because it deals with very subjective criteria, and depends largely on discretionary judgment of jail officials.

The DOJ wants to address this gap by regaining more control of BuCor. Under the BuCor charter, the DOJ has mere administrative supervisory function over the penal colonies. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra wants that to change, said his spokesperson Markk Perete, as currently, GCTAs are approved and granted by the BuCor chief.

“What we want is the review power be returned to the DOJ,” said Perete. 

“If we have that power, we can exercise it later when a case arises, we can countermand the decision, meaning we can supplant that decision with the decision of the Secretary if there is a violation of the law. Right now we can’t do that,” Perete added.

Guevarra has assembled a team to work on amendments to the BuCor law to make that happen. But until then, Bantag is to be left alone.

“The law is pretty clear in expressing that the only power of the DOJ is administrative power and nothing more,” said Perete.

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INSPECTION. BuCor Director General Gerald Bantag and Chief of the Directorial Staff Lieutenant General Guillermo Eleazar inspect the Maximum Security Compound inside the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa. Photo by Kd Madrilejos/Rappler

Radical problems, radical solutions 

The Bilibid problem did not start, and will definitely not end with the GCTA crisis. Corruption continues to thrive inside, as poorer inmates grapple with inhumane conditions of over-congestion and limited access to healthcare.  

Faced with an extraordinary circumstances, law enforcers pitch extraordinary solutions.

PDEA Special Enforcement Service (SES) agent and former chief of PDEA’s contingent in the Bilibid Jonard Cuayson proposed to gut the New Bilibid Prison: empty it of prisoners and transfer them to a new and bigger facility.

“Muntinlupa has become their safe haven. They know it so well. They do nothing the entire day but to think and think of ways to conceal contrabands,” Cuayson said in an interview with Rappler.

During PDEA’s 6 months of being stationed near the prison fortress, Cuayson recalled conducting raids that yielded drugs inside obscure places like inside match boxes with hidden compartments.

He proposed sending prisoners to Sablayan, where there is a prison and penal farm, or to Nueva Ecija, where there is none.

For former Bilibid SAF contingent chief Lieutenant Colonel Michael Caraggayan, the overhaul shouldn’t be indiscriminate but targeted. His solution involves bringing the prisoners’ mess hall out in the open and taking down the prison’s commissary.

He emphasized that there are hot spots for human interaction, trading goods, and receiving produce in buk every day – making them top suspected areas where contraband is smuggled.

On top of the demolition and relocation, Caraggayan said BuCor should install X-ray machines for blanket checks in the daily drop-offs of produce. Much like a well-screened Customs port.

“The raw [food is] dropped off by tons so you cannot inspect them all,” Caraggayan said.

Caraggayan then suggested that Corrections officials install signal jammers, which, he said, have been open for bidding for the longest time. Yet these have not been installed.

“We have been saying it from the start. Even in the early days. They say it has undergone bidding before,” Caraggayan said.

In an interview with Rappler, BuCor spokesman Gabby Chaclag, a former policeman and classmate of Bantag in the police academy, said they want to take it further via wiretapping.

“What we need is not just to jam, but to monitor,” Chaclag said, explaining that listening to conversations of criminals still operating inside would guarantee a solid case in court.

Asked whether BuCor could procure these equipment, however, he said they would have to make do what they have from the previous BuCor administration.

Chaclag added that BuCor must also recruit enough prison guards. He said they need 7,000 corrections officers to function at “optimal” level. They currently have only around 3,000 jail guards.

If they could recruit competent BuCor personnel, he said, they wouldn’t need to outsource the police to do their job, which, he believes, has resulted in “depriving” non-prisoners of the ideal number of cops in their neighborhood. The PNP, like the BuCor, after all, is also understaffed.

Still, Chaclag said, they are not in favor of destroy-the-system ideas – contrary to what his boss and classmate Bantag has been doing – if the ideas won’t find a new system that will work.

“Chaos will reign if you don’t find a way to replace the system,” Chaclag said.

Bantag has not yet granted Rappler’s interview request for this series.

Duterte-style might not work

Bantag had already employed a style reminiscent of Duterte when he demolished shanties in the maximum compound which were built by inmates to provide more living space.

But there is no simple solution, however radical, to the complicated Bilibid situation. 

The Commission on Human Rights, which ensures that the state protects its people, said that the solution should involve “multi-level, multi-stakeholder, and integrated approaches.” 

“All stakeholders must work at identifying the root causes of the problem and then address them strategically,” CHR Commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit told Rappler.

Prison reform scholar Raymund Narag, meanwhile, said that reforms should target the “cultural, organizational, and structural” aspects of the institution. These include “gaining the trust of the BuCor personnel, identifying those few who are inefficient and retrain them, and addressing the basic needs of the personnel and inmates.” 

The BuCor director-general should be “savvy” enough to introduce these changes and be accepted not just by inmates, but also by employees inside the bureau. 

The leadership, while being firm about rules, should also find a middle ground with inmates and not force change that may only make the situation worse. This becomes relevant in view of Bantag’s crackdown on gangs or pangkats, the lifeline of inmates suffering from substandard conditions inside Bilibid. 

“With the level of congestion and problems now, then you start to get rid of ways that inmates get by, I would argue that we’re in for some dire consequences in relation to Bilibid,” Clarke Jones, another prison reform advocate, said. 

WISDOM. A poster hangs on the wall of the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

The technology solution

Massive errors in record-keeping also bog down BuCor. In fact, these have led more than 2,000 convicts back to the gates of Bilibid even if they were perfectly entitled to be free.

For example, in the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW), prisoners previously convicted of qualified theft – a clearly non-heinous crime – remain behind bars up to this day because the DOJ and BuCor are still cleaning up their records, even after 3 months have passed. About 35 returnees remain inside CIW as of writing

Inside CIW, case files of the more than 3,000 prisoners there and possibly archived ex-inmates are stacked against the walls. These carpetas hold every document related to the inmates’ charges and sentences, all in hard copy. The physical copies of the returnees’ carpetas were also sent to the DOJ when they were forwarded for GCTA recomputation. 

When they were forwarded, CIW Superintendent Angelina Bautista said they only had duplicates of the originals and supplementary documents with their basic information. Even then, only some returnees had duplicates.

Bautista said systems should be digitized and computerized. Because of bottlenecks among higher authorities, Bautista had always wanted the DOJ and BuCor to pass clearing authority to the CIW instead.

The DOJ will launch in January a single carpeta system, or the National Justice Information System (NJIS), which will serve as a portal of all information on all prisoners nationwide.

What this says about us

History shows that BuCor is a place where chiefs come and go. It’s a high-pressure job that has seen a high turnover rate. 

Former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III had 7 BuCor chiefs. His first one – General Ernesto Diokno – resigned within a year because of a scandal involving inmate Antonio Leviste, who was discovered to be going in and out of Bilibid.

Bantag is Duterte’s 6th BuCor chief in only 3 years.

The disgraced Nicanor Faeldon, one prisoner said, would play basketball with them as his way of establishing rapport with his constituents. In Bantag’s first days, he quickly met the eldest prisoners and promised them freedom soon. Clemency is typically granted by presidents to old and sickly prisoners.

The Bilibid Hospital is still sorely lacking in doctors. It plans to hire job-order physicians as a quick fix given the death rate inside hitting critical levels.

BuCor is one of the most problematic agencies yet the slowest in improvements.

The reason why is not a secret. As one returnee’s daughter said in Filipino: “Nobody cares because their lives are cheap, they’re convicted so they should be killed. That’s their reaction, right?”

“A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones,” Nelson Mandela once said, referring to a country’s treatment of its prisoners.

Besides quality of governance, neglect of prisoners also speaks of the values we hold. Are we capable of believing that a person can change, or are we all out to draw blood, leaving every convict to fend for himself? Rappler.com

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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.

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.

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.