MANILA, Philippines – The decision on whether or not to release en masse persons deprived of liberty (PDL) who are low-risk, sick, or elderly remains uncertain in the current pandemic environment where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to rise.
As of Tuesday, April 28, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) has recorded at least 195 prisoners with COVID-19 in facilities nationwide.
Meanwhile, there are 49 convicts from Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) facilities who have tested positive, with one death.
Several other countries, including Indonesia and Iran, already released thousands of prisoners in a bid to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.
But in the Philippines, the judiciary is yet to decide. Where are we now? Below is the timeline of statements and actions on this issue.
Kapatid, an organization of families of political prisoners, appeals to the Duterte administration to release en masse PDLs who are low-level offenders, elderly, sick, and “accidental victims of political arrests,” among others.
“While we recognize the health basis for the lockdown of jails, we maintain that no prison is a closed environment because prison personnel come and go inside the facilities, exposing the already most vulnerable to the spread of infection,” Kapatid spokesperson Fides Lima said.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año rejects calls to temporarily release detainees with light offenses because, according to him, they are safer inside.
The justice committee in the House of Representatives recommends the temporary release on bail of low-risk offenders, sick, and elderly prisoners as the country fights the coronavirus pandemic.
The document is signed by justice committee chairperson Vicente Veloso and sent to the peace and order cluster of the overall House defeat COVID-19 committee, the Supreme Court, Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG)
Twenty-two political prisoners ask the Supreme Court to release them on humanitarian grounds in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
The petitioners invoke the Supreme Court decision that granted bail to former senator Juan Ponce Enrile on the basis of his health and old age.
The petition says the political prisoners are also “elderly, sickly, and with medical conditions” that require continuous monitoring and treatment.
The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) says it supports the temporary release of eligible PDLs to decongest jails, given the pandemic, but only if there is a court order.
In a letter submitted to the House committee on justice, BJMP’s Alan Iral says “the expeditious release of all qualified persons… by reason of a court order on the basis of the proposed omnibus reduction of bail mentioned in the committee’s recommendation is an idea we strongly subscribe to.”
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra says the Department of Justice already had already ordered the fast-tracking of release of elderly and sick PDLs even before the coronavirus outbreak.
BJMP announces that at least 9 PDLs and 9 personnel at the Quezon City Jail tested positive for the coronavirus. The PDLs are isolated at a facility in Payatas, Quezon City while the staff are put on quarantine.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, asks the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) to comment on the petition filed seeking the release of low-risk and vulnerable prisoners.
BuCor confirms that a 72-year-old inmate at the Correctional Institute for Women tested positive for the coronavirus.
An inmate at the Cebu City Jail dies after complaining of having difficulty breathing, before his test results arrived. He tests positive for the coronavirus.
Cebu City Mayor Edgar Labella then orders the city’s health department to begin mass testing at the Cebu City Jail.
The Supreme Court orders judges to urgently release prisoners who fall under a 2014 guideline on jail decongestion. These prisoners are those who have been detained longer than their minimum penalty and those whose cases have been stalled due to lack of witnesses.
The circular, however, is not the decision on the petition filed by political prisoners.
BJMP announces that an additional 123 individuals from the Cebu City Jail tested positive for the coronavirus, including 114 inmates and 13 personnel.
This figure brings the total positive cases in Cebu City Jail to 127.
The Department of Justice says it has relaxed the rules for parole and executive clemency but excludes those convicted of heinous crimes, illegal drugs, and those considered high-risk.
The definition of heinous crimes is based on Republic Act 7659, the now-repealed death penalty law. (READ: What are heinous crimes?)
Solicitor General Jose Calida blocks the petition to release on humanitarian grounds sickly, elderly, and low-risk prisoners. He asks the SC to dismiss the petition
In his comment submitted to the SC, Calida says “congestion in prison facilities is not among the grounds to release inmates.”
BuCor announces that 27 more inmates in the Correctional Institute for Women tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Public Interest Law Center (PILC) and National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) file before the SC their response to the OSG’s comment regarding their petition.
According to the human rights lawyers, “death, violence, and riots can also break out if the pandemic is left unchecked in prisons.” – Rappler.com