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As prison and jail authorities around the world scramble to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there is one jail in Metro Manila – Manila City Jail (MCJ) – leading the way in preventing the disease spreading in their highly congested jail. With an inmate population of just under 5,000, the MCJ is one of the largest detention facilities in the Philippines run by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). Right now, the MCJ has no active COVID-19 cases.
Through a system of shared governance, both inmates (also referred to as Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs)) and guards in the MCJ carefully navigate their way through the crisis with close consultation, cooperation, mutual contingency planning, transparency, and mutual respect.
Yet, like in other correctional systems, the pandemic has exacerbated a significant existing problem – overcrowding. When jails and prisons are over capacity, it makes it impossible to achieve social distancing. So far, the rapid rise in infection rates across the world exemplify the unfolding crisis in corrections.
Through a system of shared governance, both inmates (also referred to as Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs)) and guards in the MCJ carefully navigate their way through the crisis with close consultation, cooperation, mutual contingency planning, transparency, and mutual respect. As prison and jail authorities around the world scramble to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there is one jail in Metro Manila – Manila City Jail (MCJ) – leading the way in preventing the disease spreading in their highly congested jail. With an inmate population of just under 5,000, the MCJ is one of the largest detention facilities in the Philippines run by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). Right now, the MCJ has no active COVID-19 cases.
In the US, where the imprisonment rate is the highest in the world, there are 1,534 federal inmates and 343 BOP staff confirmed positive for COVID-19, with 31 fatalities. In the UK, there are 207 PDLs in 57 jails testing positive, with 15 deaths. In Pakistan, a country where severe overcrowding is prevalent, there are 98 confirmed cases, albeit testing procedures are poor.
In a bid to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, some countries have released low-risk offenders to reduce congestion. In Indonesia, 30,000 PDLs were released. The UK were to free 4,000, but actual releases were few and eventually halted after an administrative error freed the wrong inmates.
If the spread of COVID-19 is not bad enough, the measures to address the disease are also causing prisoner unrest. In Italy, 12 PDLs died in riots due to a ban on visitations. Similar measures have sparked prisoner unrest in other countries. Breakouts have occurred in Thailand and Brazil and riots in Argentina, Italy, Indonesia, Columbia, and Turkey.
In the Philippines, the most overcrowded correctional system in the world, the national congestion rate exceeds 650%. Quezon City Jail in Manila has a congestion rate of 1,048% and Zamboanga City Jail has 2,432%. Overall, most prisons and jails in the country are highly overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and unsanitary, with PDLs having limited access to healthcare.
There have been numerous calls to the government to reduce PDL numbers by considering early or temporary release of low-risk PDLs, bailable offenders, and vulnerable inmates, such as the elderly or those unwell. So far, measures to address COVID-19 have been varied, with no PDLs released. (READ: [OPINION] Temporary relief for Persons Deprived of Liberty amid the coronavirus)
With limited testing, an accurate picture of infection and death rates is elusive. However, from direct communication, we know of many positive COVID-19 cases. Jails in Cebu have recorded 333 cases, Quezon City Jail in Manila has 9, and the Correctional Institute for Women has 18. At least 54 PDLs in prisons run by the Bureau of Corrections have contracted COVID-19, with at least 93 PDLs in isolation.
Despite the number of positive tests in other Filipino facilities, there have been no PDLs with COVID-19 in MCJ. What’s more, morale amongst guards and PDLs remains high, with no recorded security issues, riots, or breakouts.
So, what has contributed to the virus-free facility and serenity so far in MCJ’s PDL population.
Compared to other jails, the MCJ has shown remarkable initiative. Through a system of shared governance, the MCJ Warden has led the way in co-designing innovative strategies with the gang leaders to prevent the entry and transmission of COVID-19, while at the same time keeping the peace.
As a contingency, the MCJ now has designated isolation areas, numbered from Level 1 dormitory to Level 3. If the number of COVID-19 cases were to escalate quickly, it would be the gangs giving up their highly prized accommodation to create extra isolation areas. Therefore, careful negotiation with the PDLs began early to ensure there was contingency capacity. While taking an inmate’s accommodation would normally be difficult and potentially dangerous, the system of shared governance facilitated the deal through mutual respect and cooperation.
When visitations were shut down by the BJMP leadership to prevent the spread of COVID-19, personnel were also included in the lockdown, meaning that they couldn’t go home at the end of their shift. The PDLs saw this as a sign of dedication and compassion, providing a strong message to them that “we are all in this together.” In return, some of the guards have become temporary guests of the jail gangs, where VIP accommodation rooms have been provided for sleeping.
Also, while visitations to prison and jails were halted across the country, the MCJ Warden made an agreement with the gang leaders to open up a closely supervised Skype room to allow PDLs to communicate with loved ones.
As another sign of solidarity with the PDLs, the guards are donating 1.5% of their salaries to support the COVID-19 response efforts. As recognition, the gang leaders have also provided support to BJMP. Through contacts on the outside, inmate resources have been mobilized. When the Warden was unable to get supplies, such as alcohol for cleansing, face masks, or protective equipment, the gangs utilized their contacts to obtain supplies, albeit through tight security measures. When protective equipment couldn’t be acquired outside, the PDLs made it inside using their own resources.
Overall, BJMP is striving hard to prevent COVID-19 spreading in their jails – the safety and security of PDLs remaining paramount. However, the initiatives taken by the MCJ though a system of shared governance presents unique adaptive practices that show a more compassionate approach to correctional management and provide a glimmer of hope for PDLs and guards in a time of COVID-19 chaos. – Rappler.com
Clarke Jones, PhD is a Senior Research Fellow at the College of Health and Medicine at Australian National University.
Raymund E. Narag, PhD is Assistant Professor at the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.