[OPINION] What PH jails should do to deal with the coronavirus

Nikko Dizon
[OPINION] What PH jails should do to deal with the coronavirus
In order to help deal with COVID-19 in the Philippine correctional system, the authors identify 4 key areas that must be properly addressed by the Bureau of Corrections and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology

The number of COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails around the world are showing how vulnerable inmate populations can be. A large percentage of people entering prisons and jails already have chronic medical conditions such as asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, or live with a disability, which makes them more susceptible to catching COVID-19. The risk and potential for serious harm is multiplied by the fact that prisons and jails are often overcrowded and unhygienic places, often with limited access to appropriate health care. (READ: Prisoners dread virus outbreak in race against time)

In order to help deal with COVID-19 in the Philippine correctional system, we have identified 4 key areas that must be properly addressed by the Bureau of Corrections and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology. 

First, persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) that are infected with COVID-19 need to be quickly identified, which entails mass testing.

Second, the infected PDLs need to be segregated and isolated as soon as possible, which means placing them in safe and secure medical housing units.

Third, those infected require care by suitably qualified medical personnel that have access to certified medical equipment, medicine, and other health resources to ensure proper treatment.

Finally, all cases require proper documentation and assessment to determine whether they have recovered and are ready to be released back to the general PDL population. This entails proper record-keeping and monitoring. 

It is essential that any action taken now by BUCOR and BJMP to address COVID-19 takes on a Human Right-Based Approach (HRBA). To determine whether these key areas of COVID-19 management are compliant, the structural, organizational, and cultural competencies of the jails and prisons must be evaluated. We suggest that the key areas and associated survey questions covered include the following:

Structural (personnel, facility, space, and resources)
a. Does the jail/prison have the sufficient number of personnel, facility, space, and resources to identify, segregate, treat, and monitor the conditions of the PDLs?
b. Does the jail/prison have the resources for mass testing, quarantine areas, ventilators, protective equipment, cadaver disposal, and other medical needs?

Organizational (training, procedures, coordination)
a. Does the jail/prison have the personnel capacity, in terms of education and training, to conduct mass testing, interpret results, administer treatment, and isolate those infected?
b. Does the jail/prison have formally stated protocols and procedures that delineate how to identify, segregate, treat, and monitor infected PDLs?

Cultural (transparency and openness)
a. Is the jail/prison transparent in its records of how many are infected, segregated, treated and recovered?
b. Are the records open for the scrutiny of outside audit?

We have also identified 5 areas where human rights violations can and have accrued. These include when the jails or prisons do not have isolation and quarantine areas, as this will expose healthy PDLs to those infected. This is a violation of the right to health and, potentially, of the right to life of the PDLs. Current overcrowded conditions, coupled with the threat of COVID-19, is tantamount to inhumane and cruel punishment, which is forbidden by the Philippine Constitution of 1987. Families of victims of COV-19 in congested jails and prisons can later file damages against the government, a practice now common in other countries like the United States. (READ: U.N. urges prisoner releases to avoid coronavirus contagion)

Another area we’ve identified is the abuse of authority by the prison and jail personnel. Due to lack of personnel, PDLs are instructed to take care of infected PDLs, and to carry the corpses without proper personal protective equipment. Authorities can also be criminally liable, if infected PDLs are not identified, segregated/isolated, and treated, as the lack of facilities and resources cannot be used as an excuse for such actions. However, it’s not just the abuse of PDLs; personnel are also made to treat infected inmates without proper personal protective equipment or experience. The lack of protective equipment violates the rights of personnel to have safe working environments.

Finally, if the cause of death of PDLs is not made public in order to hide the true infection rate in the prisons and jails, then health protocols and laws on public health emergency management are violated.

We have identified several ways for BuCor and BJMP to develop a HRBA to the management of COVID-19 in their prisons and jails. 

First and foremost is the dire need to reduce congestion. To achieve this, correctional authorities must identify those PDLs nearing the completion of their sentences (6 months remaining for jail authorities); those with two years remaining (in prisons run by BuCor), those who are 60 and above, those who are sickly (with comorbidities), and those who are assessed as low risk PDLs, and release them under the “compassionate release” program. The Supreme Court and the Department of Justice must give discretion to BuCor and BJMP, using their professional judgment, to release these offenders. (READ: LIST: Countries releasing prisoners over coronavirus fears)

Second, mass testing of all PDLs must be conducted nationwide. This can be done in coordination with the Local Government Units in each of the facilities, which have jurisdiction over the local jail and prison facilities.

Third, isolation/quarantine sites must be created in all facilities, regardless of capacity. The individual jail and prison authorities can identify cells/dorms/brigades that can be temporarily vacated and sanitized. In cooperation with the PDLs, they can then transfer existing residents to other cell/dorms/brigades and use the cleaned cells/dorms/brigades as quarantine and treatment areas. As more PDLs get infected, other sites can also be designated by the jail wardens and prison superintendents as quarantine areas if space and facilities permit.

Four, it is important to develop protocols for the identification, isolation, treatment, and monitoring of infected PDLs. This requires coordination with LGUs, NGOs, and other helpful partners. Jails and prisons can request for resources and training of personnel to boost personnel capacity. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has already developed excellent protocols that can be adopted by the jail and prison authorities. 

Finally, it is crucial that correctional authorities provide timely updates and accurate information. PDLs and their family members must be properly informed of the conditions of their loved ones. The media, academe, and other helpful organizations must be given unbridled access to information in order to help document trends, disseminate useful information, and craft practical policies.

We recognize that our recommendations may mean a considerable departure from usual procedures, but it is critical that the health and welfare of every person in the Philippines’ correctional system is protected.

Victims of injustice unite; we have nothing to lose but our handcuffs. – Rappler.com

Raymund E. Narag, PhD is Assistant Professor at the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Clarke Jones, PhD is a Senior Research Fellow at the College of Health and Medicine at Australian National University.

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Nikko Dizon

Nikko Dizon is a freelance journalist specializing in security and political reporting. She has extensively covered issues involving the military, the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute, human rights, and the peace process.