‘Safer inside’: DILG rejects release of low-level offenders amid coronavirus

Lian Buan

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‘Safer inside’: DILG rejects release of low-level offenders amid coronavirus


The call is to temporarily release detainees – meaning, people who have not been convicted yet – and those who are entitled to bail but just couldn't afford it

MANILA, Philippines – Interior Secretary Eduardo Año on Wednesday, March 18, rejected calls to temporarily release detainees with light offenses as government struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“You won’t see them anymore after the lockdown. It’s much safer inside against the virus,” Año told Rappler in a text message Wednesday.

Several groups have called for the temporary release of low-level offenders.

In a statement, prison reform experts Raymund Narag and Clarke Jones said the government could free up the crowded detention facilities by releasing “first time, low-risk, non-violent, bailable offenders.”

“Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) who are charged with offenses such as gambling, theft of less than a thousand pesos, drug use, etc, especially those who are old (above 60 years old) and sickly, will be prioritized for release,” Narag and Jones said.

Congested jails

To be clear, the call is to temporarily release detainees, meaning people who have not been convicted yet. These detainees are under the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) which is supervised by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

“These are PDLs that, if with money and resources, could have bailed out, and could have been released. But due to poverty, they are languishing in our jails while undergoing prolonged trials,” said Narag and Jones.

“No, walang connection ang COVID-19 sa sentence nila (COVID-19 has no connection to their sentence),” was Año’s initial response.

But when told that detainees under him are those with no sentence yet, Año said: “Even then but they have prima facie evidence that’s why we cannot release them.”

According to the scholars, BJMP has a congestion rate of 350%.

“If one of the PDLs gets infected in the congested jails, it will be a horrendous nightmare,” said Narag and Clarke.

Año said, Kapag pinakawalan mo lalo sila mahahawa (if you release them, they are more likely to be infected).”

“As long as no outsider is allowed inside, they are all safe. All visits are suspended,” said Año.

How to do this

Iran and Los Angeles in the US have started releasing prisoners to try and curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Iran, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, has released over 85,000 prisoners, many of whom are anti-government protesters. Iran said it will take them back into custody on April 3, according to a report on Al Jazeera.

Human rights lawyer Tony La Viña said detainees can either be bailed out or avail of the mechanism called self-recognizance, which is a written promise to the court that he or she will show up for hearings.

Narag and Jones said the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) can make a national pleading, to be submitted to the Supreme Court.

“The list will then be submitted to the respective judges, and the judges, using their sound discretion can release the PDLs on their own self-recognizance, or even on a One-Peso Bail,” said the scholars.

They added: “As a condition, the PDLs will provide a promise to appear on the court-appointed dates. The wardens will get their addresses and the contact information of their relatives for monitoring.”

“History tells us prisons and jails become epicenters of disease. Not only prisoners are infected, but prison officials – wardens, guards, support staff – and family members of prisoners and officials, as well as surrounding areas will be affected,” said La Viña.

La Viña said the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) fiasco proved that prisoners can return if called. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

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