Philippine jails

Duterte’s drug war pushes prisons to a breaking point

Lian Buan

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Duterte’s drug war pushes prisons to a breaking point

CROWDED. The small facility of the Dasmariñas City Jail female dormitory is divided into three cells that cram 312 PDLs.

Ulysis Pontanares/Rappler

Part 1: Datasets obtained and analyzed by Rappler show that Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against drugs sent prison populations soaring beyond the 100,000 mark, and held drug defendants hostage in delayed trials

First of 2 Parts

In April 2019, the death toll from Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs had already reached as many as 27,000 and was on top of the agenda of international human rights bodies. Below the radar was Carlo*, not his real name, and the rest of the drug suspects sent to jail during that time – all living proof of the war’s toll. 

Carlo was 29 years old in April 2019 when he was jailed for a drug offense, joining the tens of thousands of drug war suspects that clogged Philippine prisons during the brutal campaign.

Datasets obtained and analyzed by Rappler show how the drug war pushed an already overwhelmed prison system to its breaking point. Jail populations soared beyond the 100,000 mark, and drug defendants – and other defendants who became collateral damage – were held hostage by delayed trials.

Carlo was acquitted in October 2023, declared innocent from a crime that was stalled 4 years and 6 months in trial because the courts just could not keep up. “There were more than 20 hearings which kept being reset,” Carlo told Rappler, “we were also caught up in the pandemic, and in the end, the police could not form a consistent narrative against us.”

A floodgate of cases

For five years before Duterte’s ascent to power in 2016, facilities of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), covering detainees on trial while waiting for judgment, were kept below a 100,000 population. The 96,402 population peak in 2015 already represented a 411% congestion rate, which means that on average, 41 detainees were sharing a cell meant for only 10. 

Data shows that although there were already many drug cases pre-2016, they did not constitute a majority of the detainees. 

Then Duterte launched his war. The graph below visualizes how drug cases in BJMP facilities took over starting 2016, sending the population soaring beyond 100,000. 

“Majority of the PDLs [Persons Deprived of Liberty] are drug cases. In fact, 7 out of 10 are drug cases...The congestion rate of the BJMP rose up to 600%,” BJMP spokesperson Jayrex Bustinera told Rappler.

Bustinera was talking about 2017, the second year of the drug war when the population hit 146,302. Of that population, 67% or 98,446 or PDLs were drug defendants. That was equivalent to a congestion rate of 612%, or an average of 61 detainees sharing a cell meant for only 10.

The judiciary scrambled: the Supreme Court led the charge, making drug cases more stringent for police officials. By May 2018, the High Court had promulgated a rule on plea bargaining cases for drug charges to more significantly decongest the prisons. 

The data shows it didn’t change much, because arrests continued.

“Even if you introduce all of these innovations, if the arrests continue to happen, then you’re just catching up and catching up,” said Cathy Alvarez, a human rights lawyer who leads StreetlawPH, a nonprofit that advocates for drug policy reform.

Stalled trials

The second level of the problem was that courts were too overwhelmed with the deluge of drug cases that, as Carlo said, their hearings kept being reset because there was simply not enough manpower or time to go through all of them.

“Before, our drug PDLs could not get out. There is some improvement now,” Bustinera told Rappler.

Jerry*, also not his real name, was arrested in September 2017 in a drug buy bust, and charged with drug possession under Section 11. When the Supreme Court introduced plea bargaining for drug cases in May 2018, his lawyer from the Public Attorneys Office (PAO) convinced him to plead guilty as the easiest way out.

“It took 8 months before I attended an actual hearing, they were always being reset,” Jerry told Rappler. 

Plea bargaining was resorted to heavily by public attorneys to also clear their own dockets. PAO is perenially understaffed and overwhelmed, with a current lawyer-to-case ratio of 1 to 333, and lawyer-to-client ratio of 1 to 4,997.

“​​Actually in the last administration, so many drugs cases were filed. So almost all of the regional trial courts handled a load of drugs cases. That’s when PAO really had a heavy workload,” PAO Quezon City chief Mario Dionisio told Rappler in Filipino in an interview for a separate story.

Datasets as of October 2023 show that there were still nearly 10,000 PDLs waiting on trials for five years or more, which is beyond what the rules on continuous trial envision. Of those “overstaying” PDLs, a majority, or 4,501 were drug defendants. 

The graph below shows that drug defendants are still the most common PDLs to stay longer in jail during trial.

Non-drug cases can be collateral damage, too. Lorna*, not her real name, was arrested on a murder charge in 2015, just before Duterte’s ascent to power. She has been in jail for nine years now, waiting on her twice-a-year hearings while detained at the Dasmariñas City Female Dormitory in Cavite – considered the most congested prison in the country. It’s a small space meant for only 11 people, but holds 312 PDLs. That’s equivalent to a 2,600% congestion rate.

Lorna and her fellow PDLs cram in sitting positions into a tiny space, fighting for scarce water supply whether for drinking or washing. In the Dasmariñas female dormitory, 98% of the PDLs were detained for drug charges during Duterte’s campaign. 

Food, Meal, Indoors
FOOD IN JAIL. At the Dasmariñas Female Dormitory in Cavite, persons deprived of liberty eat their meal together – chicken feet adobo and mung bean sprouts for lunch. Ulysis Pontanares/Rappler

“When you do have a hearing, your next schedule would be at least six months after, and that’s already lucky. Sometimes it’s after eight months,” said Lorna.

“Because of the sheer volume of drugs cases, courts are focused on them and of course what happens is, the other cases get delayed,” Alvarez said.

“My daughter was 10 when I was arrested. She is already 19 years old, she’s in college, and she always asks me when I am coming home,” Lorna said.

Prison conditions

Bustinera said there’s been some improvement post-Duterte. “We have cut [the congestion rate] by half through other efforts, now it’s only at 300%. One factor is the input, there are lesser people coming in,” Bustinera said.

But just because the congestion rate is decreasing does not mean the population has decreased, too. It’s because, as Bustinera said, there are lesser people coming in, and the government is able to build or free up some spaces.

The current BJMP average congestion rate, recorded from January to October 2023, is 348%, or 34 detainees sharing a cell meant for 10. 

Jerry’s cell in Metro Manila housed 100. “We sleep in a sitting position,” he said. Carlo’s cell, also in Metro Manila, housed more than 200, he said, where he experienced having to sleep only on his side.

In his nine-month detention, Jerry threw up blood. He was never taken to a hospital nor seen by a doctor, and was brought only to the prison infirmary where he was checked by a fellow detainee. 

“Our food was not decent, even if I were being fair, there were many times that there was more soup than a vegetable viand,” said Jerry, who was 25 years old when he was arrested and detained.

Carlo had frequent diarrheas in his 4 years and 6 months in detention, and had to rely on his visiting family to bring him medicine. “No one tends to you there, you will die from pain,” Carlo said. He remembers being given oral rehydration salts a few times, “which was not effective.” 

“We didn’t have a steady supply of clean water. It was also due to the food we ate, it was dirty,” said Carlo.

The legal system is part of the oppression. I'm ashamed as a lawyer.


Alvarez said that there were many other extraneous factors why drug cases clogged up the dockets during Duterte’s time.

Among the most common was the suspects’ willingness to stay in jail despite having a set bail, just because they could not afford the bond. 

“There was this woman who was five months pregnant when she was arrested. She had to choose between spending for bail, or saving up for childbirth. She chose childbirth. Imagine having to choose to lose freedom because you chose childbirth,” Alvarez told Rappler.

The Cebu-based lawyer said she also encountered cases where police officers abandoned their cases after arrest. Not showing up for hearings, the lawyer said, should have been enough basis for judges to dismiss on the ground of failure of prosecution. 

“But there were courts that would release the detainee only upon payment of a certain amount that I don’t know what for. There’s no basis for that in criminal procedure,” Alvarez said, adding that the amount could reach P10,000, which many defendants could not afford.

Duterte promised to eradicate the country’s drug problem within three to six months, but his government sent to jail only a handful of drug lords. If you base it on the high volume of plea bargains, Alvarez said, it’s an indication that the campaign against drugs targeted only low-level drug users.

“It’s also a common story,” Alvarez said, that drug defendants would swear they weren’t in possession of any amount of drugs when they were arrested.

“In almost every jail that we visit, there’s always a story where they were told ‘if you don’t have any when we arrested you, then we have.’ We heard stories where they told us, ‘we were just sleeping on the road, attorney, and I was thrown in jail and suddenly I have a drug case,” said Alvarez. 

“The legal system is part of the oppression. I’m ashamed as a lawyer,” she said. 

Adult, Male, Man
CROWDED. The small facility of the Dasmariñas City Jail female dormitory is divided into three cells that cram 312 PDLs. Ulysis Pontanares/Rappler
Harm reduction

Carlo has been trying to get a job as a construction worker, but the jobs usually offered to him are located outside of Metro Manila, and require extended stays. But he needs to report in person every week to his local anti-drug council. 

“I should have had a job by now, which is located in different areas, but I need to report every Friday. I need to finish that first,” said Carlo.

The local drug council reporting is part of a menu of “aftercare referrals” that have been employed by the legal system to decongest courts and prisons of drug cases. Another aftercare referral is the drug dependency evaluation/assessment that needs to be administered after a plea bargain release.

However, this evaluation has to be done by a facility accredited by the Department of Health (DOH), and some for a fee. 

“The problem is many are rearrested because they don’t have the money to process their evaluation. You’ve just been released, where do you get this evaluation? Or they don’t understand this requirement,” said Alvarez. “It’s not the silver bullet that people are making it out to be,” she said.

Alvarez is part of a broad alliance pushing for a harm reduction framework, where drug use is seen from a medical and not a criminal point of view. “There’s a false dichotomy in saying if you’re not jailed, then you should go to rehabilitation, because that is not responsive to the needs of the people whose lives include drug use,” said Alvarez.

It fails to take into account, said Alvarez, those who use drugs as a stimulant, such as heavy machinery operators or truck drivers who need to stay awake and alert. “Unfortunately, our law does not recognize that. The law does not ask: what do you use this for, was it the first time you used drugs? It’s a very prohibitionist and punitive law,” said Alvarez.

The way forward

At the decongestion summit last year, spearheaded by the top officials of all three branches of government, House Speaker Martin Romualdez said the legislature was open to studying the decriminalization of libel if only to give the court and prison dockets breathing room.

An alternative to imprisonment is always welcome, BJMP’s Bustinera said, but “if we want to really make a big impact, maybe it's better [to focus] on drug cases because 70% of those incarcerated or awaiting trial or maybe in trial are drug cases,” he said.

Jerry has been separated from his partner since his detention, and now he has to provide for his toddler with special needs by driving an electric bicycle that is not his own. He cannot afford to be rearrested.

Ever since his election campaign, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has promised that he will change the way that the war on drugs is run. It will be framed on health, he said, and will be based on human rights. But to this day, the Duterte-era police circular that operationalized his bloody drug war, PNP CMC 16-2016, passed by former police chief and now senator Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, remains a live document.

“Until we remove that, until we end that practice, then how can we say that we are using a public health and humanized approach?” said Alvarez. (To be concluded) – with reporting from Patrick Cruz/

*All quotes were translated to English for brevity

NEXT: Philippines only starting to probe ‘silent tragedy’ of prison deaths

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Lian Buan

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