Concern over deaths in Bilibid mounts in the face of the pandemic

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QUARANTINE. Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) staff transfer a batch of 27 new coronavirus-infected Correctional inmates to the New Bilibid Prison quarantine facility on April 25, 2020.

Photo courtesy of BuCor

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QUARANTINE. Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) staff transfer a batch of 27 new coronavirus-infected Correctional inmates to the New Bilibid Prison quarantine facility on April 25, 2020.

Photo courtesy of BuCor

Concern over deaths in Bilibid mounts in the face of the pandemic

Concerns are mounting over the welfare of inmates of the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) as dead bodies continue to be seen inside with little to no explanation from the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor).

BuCor has reported only one coronavirus case so far – a patient who already died on April 23 – but it has not reported on the overall death toll from other causes, even as Rappler has confirmed one died from “coronavirus suspicion” without ever being tested.

Documents showing a high number of deaths from March 4 to April 24 were obtained by Rappler but the BuCor has not responded to our repeated messages since April 20 for the bureau to either confirm or deny the information.

Rappler tracked down families of some of the inmates on the dead list, who confirmed that their relatives had passed away on the dates shown on the documents.

The dead include a newly-transferred prisoner whose death was due to pneumonia but who was suspected of having the coronavirus, and an inmate whose death, up to now, has not been determined or listed. 

Rappler spoke to insiders who said the sight of dead bodies inside Bilibid was unusual, raising concerns among them, especially since the coronavirus has already broken into the fragile national penitentiary.

Rappler had sent BuCor and the Department of Justice (DOJ) a list of questions, including whether all the inmates who died during the pandemic were swabbed for coronavirus.

Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete told Rappler that the BuCor has "yet to verify."

"Per my discussion with BuCor officials, deaths during [that] period are due to natural causes (old age, lingering illness, etc.)," said Perete.

BuCor had earlier admitted that having inadequate hospital resources has put Bilibid on a critical level where one prisoner dies every day. 

International group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday, April 28, that the "government has not fully reported prison deaths" and that authorities should investigate them immediately, citing its own interviews with inmates at the Quezon City Jail, where 9 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus. (READ: 'TAKOT NA TAKOT KAMI' While government stalls, coronavirus breaks into PH jails)

COVID-19 or not?

Benny*, who is in his late 50s, was a new Bilibid inmate who was at the Reception and Diagnostic Center (RDC) when he got sick. 

RDC is a separate facility located near the Medium Security Compound where newly-committed prisoners are briefed and prepared for a few months before they join the prison's general population.

Benny's son Homer* said his father was transferred to Bilibid from the provincial jail either by end-February or early March 2020, according to his vague recollection. By that time, the coronavirus had already broken into the Philippines.

The prison number on the document as well as court records seen by Rappler confirm this time period. 

Benny died on April 23 due to pneumonia, Perete confirmed.

This would mean that Benny contracted pneumonia within a month or so at the RDC, was transferred to the NBP hospital, and then died very shortly after.

Homer learned of his father's death not through official communication by BuCor, but through the rumor mill which he was then able to confirm by calling a BuCor landline number. 

On April 24, BuCor announced that the first-ever coronavirus patient in Bilibid died on April 23 while confined at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM). 

Seeing this in the news, Homer is convinced that was his father. BuCor has not given him any answers.

Based on the document, Benny died "in isolation" 3 days after "admission." It listed his cause of death as "pneumonia to consider Covid." 

Perete said Benny was never tested for the virus.

"Per BuCor, he was diagnosed with pneumonia but could no longer be tested for COVID-19 because of his death. Per report, he was treated at the NBP hospital," said Perete.

Perete added that all individuals who were in contact with Benny are now in quarantine inside Bilibid. 

If Benny was not tested, then he couldn't have been the confirmed case who died. "This I have to verify," said Perete.

Due to the lockdown, Homer was stranded in a construction site in Parañaque where he works. He said he has not received sufficient food aid.

"Walang-wala na po kami. Hirap na hirap na rin kami dito, minsan hindi na kami makatulog kung paano makukuha 'yung katawan, sabi sa ‘min 'yung mga namamatay dun nag-ma-mass burial na lang, hindi na raw po nila makikita, eh kung paano po kung hindi sa COVID ‘yun, hindi pa rin po namin makikita?" Homer said.

(We really have nothing left. It's been very, very hard for us, and sometimes I couldn’t sleep thinking of how I could claim his body. We were told that there’s mass burial for the unclaimed bodies, and families don't see them ever again, but what if he didn't die of COVID, will I never see him again?)

No cause of death

Like Homer, Lorna* also found out through a string of people that her brother Gio* – a senior citizen – had died early April.

Lorna said Gio's body was transferred to the funeral parlor without a cause of death indicated on any of the papers. Gio had been sick since 2019, Lorna said.

Perete said it's part of BuCor protocol to autopsy dead inmates "to rule out foul play, but unfortunately this cannot be done at the moment because of the COVID-19 situation."

Desperate to bring home Gio's body, Lorna said she was willing to waive autopsy but the local health officials in their province said they would not authorize the transfer of the corpse without a clear cause of death, citing coronavirus lockdown protocols.

Katrina* said her brother Johnny* – below 60 years old – has been in and out of the Bilibid hospital since last year.

Katrina was also not formally notified by BuCor of her brother's death. Worse, she was not even told how to contact the funeral parlor. It was Rappler who told her how to get in touch with it. 

Like Lorna, she was told that the body cannot be claimed while the lockdown is in place. They have been told the funeral parlor's storage period is only up to 3 months, so they worry about never being able to see her brother again.

"Nangungulila na po kami, masakit po ma'am kasi gustong-gusto rin po namin s’yang maiuwi kaso hindi puwede. Kahit wala na kaming pera, basta maiuwi," said Lorna who was told she’d have to pay as much as P50,000 for cremation and transport.

(We long to see him, it hurts because we badly want to bring him home but can't. We want to bring him home even if we can't afford it.) 

"Kung pumunta lang si Presidente Duterte sa ospital, maaawa siya," said Lorna. (If President Duterte sees the hospital there, he would pity them.) 

Katrina worries for their mother, who, she said, spaces out at certain moments during the day because of the death of her son, and over uncertainty of claiming his body. They’re not even sure they can afford the services.

"Hindi po ba ’pag bilanggo, si Presidente Duterte na bahala doon?" asked Katrina. (Doesn't President Duterte shoulder the costs for prisoners?) 

BuCor and the DOJ have yet to respond to our question of whether or not assistance can be extended to the families.

Death toll

The funeral parlor where the dead from the NBP have been brought has not responded to Rappler's requests for interview, but people who were able to talk to attendants were told that there have indeed been "many bodies" brought to them since the lockdown.

Asked how many they were handling, a staff told Rappler's source that it was confidential and any queries should be sent to BuCor.

BuCor is notorious for keeping their official death toll secret, with Director General Gerald Bantag and his spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag always telling reporters a variation of the explanation that people die.

BuCor has built an isolation facility inside the Medium Security Compound called "Site Harry." This is the quarantine facility for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, mostly female inmates – 48 of them – from the Correctional Institute for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong.

The transfer of the 48 infected inmates from Mandaluyong to Muntinlupa is being protested all the way to Malacañang by Muntinlupa Mayor Jaime Fresnedi.

On April 23, Fresnedi wrote Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles that while he is "mindful" of humane responses to prisoners, "we also have to consider the thousands of Muntinlupeños who are put at great risk with the additional COVID-19 patients brought to the City."

Separate sources also raised the alarm that a detention facility at the Maximum Security Compound which houses elderly prisoners uses only roofing iron sheets as divider from a morgue – causing great distress to the living inmates.

Another source said that the facility for coronavirus-positive inmates is near the area of overseers, or the jail personnel assigned to cells, who are always in close contact and coordination with cell mayors, causing more paranoia.

Both BuCor and DOJ have yet to respond to this concern.

The NBP can hold only 6,435 inmates. As of October 2019, it has 30,426, translating to a 337% congestion rate.

Returnees are also stranded at the Minimum Security Compound, where they have been since September, when the Duterte administration hauled back to jail thousands of convicts on the basis of the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law.

The return to prison was a consequence of amending the GCTA law so it no longer benefits those who committed heinous crimes. There is a pending petition before the Supreme Court challenging this amendment.

The convicts either returned or were intimidated into returning using a very flawed list. The administration has promised they will be re-released once their papers are verified.

At least 4 returnees have died since then.

The BuCor and the DOJ have also not given updated numbers on how many were re-released since 2019.

The DOJ has relaxed rules for parole and clemency in an attempt to decongest Bilibid amid the pandemic. – 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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