‘Takot na takot kami’: While government stalls, coronavirus breaks into PH jails

Rambo Talabong, Jodesz Gavilan, Lian Buan

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‘Takot na takot kami’: While government stalls, coronavirus breaks into PH jails
Like the prisoners, their families also feel trapped with nowhere to go. Their fear is compounded by the agonizing wait for the Duterte government's action.


  • The Philippines confirms its first 9 cases of detainees testing positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) inside the overly congested Quezon City jail.
  • At least 23 convicts from penal institutions like the New Bilibid Prison are suspected of having contracted COVID-19. At least 76 convicts have been placed in isolation.
  • The Department of the Interior and Local Government waits for a court order before releasing detainees. The Department of Justice is still studying the policy.
  • Even low-risk convicts eligible for early freedom are stranded as the Good Conduct Time Allowance has been suspended.
  • Families are in agony waiting for a solution. They cannot visit their jailed relatives under lockdown and they fear for their food rations and their health.

MANILA, Philippines – The sound of Mylene’s* phone echoes throughout the house all day. The incessant alerts signal another attempt to refresh a Facebook page. 

She is glued to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, her finger flipping through and tapping on posts by the bureau, desperate for any update on the detainees at the Quezon City Jail. 

She already has every reason to worry about the safety of her brother Melvin, one of the 3,821 persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) there, amid the coronavirus pandemic that has infected thousands in the Philippines. 

The jail is located in a city hardest hit by the coronavirus, with at least 1,016 cases, as of April 17. 

At least 380 out of the 467 jails under BJMP are congested, as of October 2019. This results in a national congestion rate of 450%, which means 6 detainees occupy the space only meant for one.

On March 18, a day after Luzon was put on lockdown and as calls mounted for the humanitarian release of low-risk and vulnerable prisoners, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año rejected suggestions from advocacy groups and told Rappler prisoners were “safer inside.”

A month later on Friday, April 17, one of Mylene’s worst fears became reality.

Through a Facebook live video, BJMP authorities announced there were at least 18 people confirmed to have the coronavirus inside the Quezon City Jail – 9 prisoners and 9 personnel.

Takot na takot kami kasi kahit pasaway iyon, kapatid ko iyon eh,” Mylene told Rappler. “Gusto naming malaman na ligtas siya o kung ano ang ginagawa nila para maging ligtas sila.” 

(We’re really scared because even if he’s stubborn, he’s still our brother. We really want to know that he’s safe or what authorities are doing to ensure their safety.) 

The last time she visited Melvin was in the last week of February and their conversation was often interrupted by his coughing fit. This worried Mylene, but all she was able to tell her brother was to take care of himself. 

Talagang inuubo siya noong araw na iyon,” she recalled. “Siyempre sa siksikang tao, kapag umubo ang isa magkakahawaan na.” 

(He was really coughing so hard that day. Of course in a crowded situation, when one coughs, it will really spread.)

The desperation comes from an age-old problem in the Philippines where police arrest more alleged criminals than jails can handle and courts could allow for release, leading to staggering overcongestion rates. 

With cramped spaces, diseases spread like wildfire. It’s exacerbated by the breakout of the highly infectious coronavirus – faster than the government can make a final decision on how to address the problem.

‘Parang sardinas’

Melvin, a construction worker, has spent almost 7 months in jail after being arrested for illegal drugs in October 2019. 

Before visitations were suspended and the eventual Luzon-wide lockdown, Mylene and another sister visited him every 3 weeks. They would take a day off from working at the neighborhood market and catch a bus to the corner of Kamuning Road and EDSA. 

Their short visits with Melvin were inundated with concerns. The things the sisters saw and heard were far too worrisome to ignore, Mylene said. 

There are too many people inside, he told them in between asking about their family. The crowd is suffocating, the heat unbearable. His health suffered. 

Kapag natutulog daw siya, halos idlip na lang kasi wala talagang space para makatulog na maayos,” Mylene said. “Parang sardinas daw sila talaga kaya awang-awa ako.” 

(When he sleeps, it’s practically catnaps because there really is no space to sleep properly. They are like sardines so they are really pitiful.)  

Mylene wants the BJMP to be transparent. If they cannot announce publicly the names of prisoners who caught the coronavirus, she said, then they should reply to queries by desperate families about the welfare of their loved ones.
She feels helpless not knowing the condition of her brother now. She wants to rush to the city jail but is afraid of being reprimanded.

The helplessness drove Mylene to Facebook, where she lingers every day at the BJMP page for any update on the situation. She waits for her Facebook inbox to buzz for any bit of information about her brother. But her messages sent to authorities have remained unanswered.

Araw-araw ako nagme-message sa Facebook nila kasi gusto ko malaman ano ang kalagayan ng kapatid ko sa loob,” she said. “Wala kaming kaalam-alam, doon na lang kami umaasa sa nakikita lang namin.”

(I message [BJMP] on their Facebook every day because I want to know how my brother is inside. We have no idea so we only rely on the news and the posts of BJMP about what’s happening inside.) 

Too late action?

The Supreme Court has ordered the executive to answer a petition demanding the release of vulnerable prisoners. It gave a deadline of April 24, stretching the process by another week. This is probably the farthest step taken by any branch of government in hastening the release of low-risk and vulnerable PDLs.

Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) which co-signed the petition, said this is too slow.

“The time bomb is ticking faster and louder. The expediency of the circumstances and imminence of the health threat call for a more decisive, less ponderous approach, even as we understand prudent and practical considerations,” Olalia said.

BJMP spokesman Chief Inspector Xavier Solda told Rappler in a phone interview on Friday, April 17, that lawyers should have filed this petition much earlier.

So sino dapat ang gumawa ng manifestation, sana itong mga lawyers din nila. Kailan lang ba sila nag-manifest para sa kanilang mga clients?” Solda said.

(Who should have made the manifestation, it should have been their lawyers. They just recently made that manifestation on behalf of their clients.)

The petitioners’ lawyer, Kristina Conti of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), slammed what she called a “blame-shifting” attitude, and pointed out that the government is expected to lead the responses.

“Previously, the BJMP had not been afraid of approaching the courts directly to cause the transfer of prisoners from one jail to another, so their passivity about jail decongestion now appears more about their convenience and bureaucratic inertia,” said Conti.

A timeline of events would also show the BJMP stalled on its actions, from the beginning of lockdown, when Año claimed prisoners were safer inside.

On March 25, a detainee of the QC City Jail died of a heart ailment, with the jail physician flagging coronavirus as one of the possible reasons for the death. This was not immediately announced.

On April 8, or 14 days later, Conti and fellow lawyers filed the petition, but Solda remained lukewarm to the suggestion, saying there are worries about repeat offenses.

In the April 8 statement, Solda echoed Año: “At present, the PDLs are safer inside our jails, with us.”

Rappler learned, however, that as early as April 7, the House justice committee had sent government agencies, including BJMP, a recommendation to temporarily release prisoners amid the pandemic, saying that “to do nothing in this time of national public health emergency would effectively be sentencing these detainees to death while their cases are still pending before the courts.”

Rappler also obtained the BJMP’s April 9 response to the House justice committee, which had jail director Allan Iral saying: “We support the idea that jail decongestion at this point in time is an immediate and effective response to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Iral made an important qualification in his letter: they can only release prisoners if ordered by the court.

That same day, on April 9, Solda announced that the March 25 death of the inmate was flagged on suspicion it could have been caused by the coronavirus, and added that they had started isolating prisoners at a separate facility in Payatas.

“When no executive action or initiative was forthcoming, we were forced to turn to the courts on our own, even if the process could be more tedious and slower,” Conti said.

SLEEPING. Some PDLs find any spot to sleep inside the Quezon City Jail on March 27, 2020. Photo by Maria Tan/AFP

‘Wala akong magagawa’

But not every prisoner has access to a lawyer who could seek his release in this time of the pandemic.

Carlo*, 32 years old and arrested during a supposed drug buy-bust in December 2018, had to take a plea bargain agreement because his previous lawyer had dropped him.

Insisting on his innocence, Carlo’s mother Linda said the 3 others arrested could clear his son but they wouldn’t. Linda claimed Carlo was just standing by a lamp post when cops dragged him to a house and arrested him with the people inside.

In December 2019, after a year at the now vulnerable Quezon City Jail, Carlo decided he would plead guilty and take the 6-month sentence.

Linda was on her way to completing the requirements, a good moral certificate from the barangay and clearances from different courts, when the lockdown was declared.

Kasi kung ano man pong gusto kong gawin ngayon wala akong magagawa dahil lockdown, hindi rin naman kami makadalaw,” said Linda.

(No matter what I want to do, I can’t do anything because of this lockdown, I can’t even visit.)

Visitations have been suspended nationwide, with the government enabling electronic visits via video and phone calls.

‘Madami nang namatay’

Maryrose* was watching over her 3-year-old daughter play in their tight cement house in Payatas, Quezon City, when her cellphone rang.

It was the number of a stranger, but she knew who was on the other line.

Papa? Kumusta?” she asked. (Papa? How are you?)

Naku, anak, ano ba ‘yan, nakakatakot dito. Madami nang namatay. Hawa-hawa na dito. Wala kaming makain. Mga malnourished na ang mga tao (Child, it’s frightening here. Many have died. People are infecting each other. There’s nothing to eat. People are malnourished),” he said.

They do not know what the causes of death of the prisoners were.

Maryrose’s 56-year-old father, Danny*, was inside the Quezon City Jail, just one among thousands who found themselves forcefully isolated in a place where the coronavirus had struck.

Wala nga siya dapat diyan (He shouldn’t be there),” lamented Maryrose in a phone interview on Friday, April 17.

One afternoon in November 2019, cops knocked on their door looking for Danny. Maryrose peered through their window and told them he was not home. He actually was. But Danny left for a walk later and the same cops saw him, cuffed him, and took him to their station.

Maryrose said it was a case of palit-ulo, literally, an exchange of heads, an alleged scheme used by cops wherein they capture drug suspects and ask them to name other suspects in exchange for lighter charges. She believes it was her father’s neighbor who used her father’s name. She said he had stopped using drugs in 2019.

Pero kahit naman sabihin mo na nagbago na, gagamitin pa rin ‘yung nangyari dati (Even if you reason that he has already changed, they will still use what had happened in the past),” she said.

Weeks went by and Danny eventually landed at the bursting Quezon City Jail, where he slept on the floor, ate with his bare hands, and could not bathe alone.

He sought the shortest way to freedom so he took a plea deal. He admitted to selling, possessing drugs, and possessing equipment for their use but would be released on probation.

He looked forward to a hearing before the court on April 2, but it was canceled because of the lockdown. A probation officer also had to visit their family’s home before he could be released. The lockdown also saw it postponed.

Since her father was detained, Maryrose has been bringing him his favorites: sinigang and adobo. She had to prepare them well because her father cooked for a carinderia before his detention. But one time, he asked Maryrose to send him food through Lalamove or Grab. 

“Ang nakakagawa lang noon, mayayaman lang. Eh tayo, walang pera. Hindi tayo mayaman,” Maryrose recalled telling him. (Only the rich are able to do that. But we don’t have money. We are not rich.)

Maryrose’s family was among the poorest. She had no job. Her husband worked as a janitor for a private school in Quiapo, Manila, but has not been working and earning since the Metro Manila lockdown in mid-March. She said they have so far received only two barangay relief packs that were dissolving by the day.

Ayaw kong ipakita sa kanya na walang-wala na rin kami. Lalo siyang mai-istress, kahit na wala kaming pambili ng asin,” she said.  (I don’t want to let him know that we’re scraping the barrel. He’d be more stressed knowing that we couldn’t even afford salt.)

Her father’s struggle prodded her to keep quiet. Maryrose said he has been fed by the jail staff only one meal a day.
 He even had to depend on a gang just to use a cellphone and speak with her for a minute at most.

Dapat ngayong lockdown, dapat bigyan ng pagkain para ‘di kami nangangamba na walang makain ang detainees sa loob (They should give food so we don’t worry that the detainees could not eat),”she said.

She added: “Kahit pagkain na lang ang ibigay nila, kahit di na kami makadalaw (Just give them food, even if we’re unable to visit them).”

ORIENTATION. Officers from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) conduct an awareness seminar about the coronavirus among prisoners inside the Manila City Jail on March 12, 2020. Photo by Lisa Marie David/Rappler

Another GCTA problem

Also stranded in the pandemic are low-risk convicts who would have been otherwise qualified for early releases under the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) mechanism.

While convicts are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), those sentenced to 3 years and below serve their time in BJMP facilities.

Rappler obtained several memoranda which show that GCTA grants in BJMP have been suspended since September 3, 2019, around the time the Antonio Sanchez scandal broke out and the rules were revised to exclude from GCTA benefits heinous crime convicts like the rapist and murderer Sanchez.

This means that the low-risk convicts in BJMP facilities have not been able to avail of early freedoms and are stuck in jail amid the pandemic.

Solda told Rappler on Friday that “GCTA remains suspended.”

I think it’s with the DOJ already pinag-aaralan nila ‘yan. Kung anuman ang pagdedesisyunan sabihin sa amin iimplement, that’s what we will do,” said Solda.

(I think it’s with the DOJ already, they’re studying it. Whatever they decide to do or tell us to implement, that’s what we will do.)

The DOJ has not answered for days our query on how many – if any – have been released on GCTA since September.

Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said on Friday that the Uniform Manual on GCTA is still being finalized, and that any query for data should be referred to BuCor. BuCor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag has likewise not responded to our queries.

Asked if he can confirm, even without concrete numbers, if convicts had in fact been released on GCTA since September, Perete said on Friday: “Let me find this out.”

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said sick and elderly prisoners were already being processed for early releases on executive clemency even before the pandemic. Guevarra said on Wednesday, April 15, that he needs “at least one more week” to study the calls to release low-risk convicts.

DISINFECT. The Manila Police District disinfects one of its jails on April 17, 2020, as a measure against the coronavirus. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

Government’s options

Human rights lawyer Tony La Viña, among the individuals calling for the releases, said a potential “massacre is squarely the responsibility of government.”

Reacting to the confirmed cases at the Quezon City Jail, a seemingly frustrated La Viña posted on Facebook: “There. If many people – prisoners, guards, their families, the people. neighborhoods around jails – die because of COVID-19, the massacre is squarely the responsibility of government.”

“Some of us have been sounding the alarm for a month now, emphasizing the urgency of releasing all low-risk and all political prisoners, and especially those who have underlying health conditions,” said La Viña.

Scholars and lawyers have proposed that releases be made on either one-peso bails or self-recognizance, a mechanism that entails issuing a written promise to the court to show up for hearings.

A 2014 Supreme Court circular also allows for provisional dismissals in situations where cases have been dragging on due to the non-presentation of witnesses and the postponement of hearings. These cases can be provisionally dismissed but later revived when witnesses become available. 

At least 7 countries took the step of releasing prisoners as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the first governments to decide was Iran, whose judiciary announced the move as early as the first week of March 2020. It is one of the hardest hit countries by the coronavirus. 

Within a week, officials announced that at least 85,000 of the country’s reported 189,500 prisoners were temporarily granted freedom, including thousands pardoned by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Human rights groups in the Philippines referred to the “Iran solution” during their initial calls for release.

The Supreme Court also ordered the government to “take the necessary interim preventive measures required by this national emergency (COVID-19) and provide a verified report to the Court within the same period.”

Since the beginning, the BJMP has cited its suspension of visitations as an early response. Disinfections were carried out as they announced procurements of face masks and other medical supplies to protect inmates.

Evidently, these measures did not stop the coronavirus from penetrating the Quezon City Jail. Inaanalisa pa rin ng doctors how it happened. Wala nang contact visitation since March 11 pa,” said Solda.

(Our doctors are still analyzing how it happened. There have been no contact visitations since March 11.)

The BuCor, which houses sentenced convicts, also suspended visitations and implemented disinfections.

As of April 17, there are 9 convicts in the overly-congested New Bilibid Prison, and 14 convicts from the Correctional Institute for Women (CIW) who are considered suspected cases. The BuCor has isolated a total of 76 convicts, and 81 personnel in 7 penal colonies nationwide.

The next few days will be crucial for the judiciary, as the public awaits what it decides to do with the thousands of prisoners stuck in a vulnerable situation. 

Until then, Mylene will continue to scroll through the BJMP’s Facebook page. She will hit the refresh button a few more times each day, hoping that one will lead to a definite answer she and countless other families are desperately waiting for. – Rappler.com 

*Interviewees requested to use first-name aliases for privacy and protection. TOP PHOTO: CROWDED. Prison inmates lie to sleep at the crowded courtyard of the Quezon City jail in Manila on March 27, 2020. Photo by Maria Tan/AFP

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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.
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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 impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.
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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.