Philippine justice system

[OPINION] The failure of prisons

Geronimo Sy
[OPINION] The failure of prisons
'Criminals are not punished by imprisonment. They just continue with their livelihood, this time within a justice institution, surrounded by minions and security.'

Deaths, violent deaths, in our prison system are the old normal. With the recent riot in the biggest of them all, the National Penitentiary that is Bilibid Prison, there is no outcry or outrage over the 9 dead people. There is but only a whimper for an investigation.

After all, why should we care for them? These convicts – are they not the scum of the earth and the dregs of society? Judged by our courts and convicted by proof beyond reasonable doubt, they deserve incarceration – the longer the better.

Prisons developed in the 19th century as a humanitarian reform movement. It was an improvement from punishment by execution and by torture. It was an innovation from chaining people to walls or to the ground. The idea of prisons was a version of the practice of asylum for the insane and the deranged. Criminology used to suggest that criminals were mentally challenged individuals.

Imprisonment was and is a form of punishment for wrongful acts. It was meant to isolate the criminal from society – to protect society from deviants. Over time and with the advent of human rights, spending time in prison came to mean a period of reflection and prayer, of going back to school and learning new skills. Detention was for the good of criminals, so they could change and be “cured” before their reintegration into the community.

But the reality is that prisoners who enter our jails become hardened. They are introduced to the darkest parts of the criminal world and acquire knowledge and contacts from the grandest criminal masterminds. Isn’t Bilibid the central hub for the drug trade in our country?

Criminals are not punished by imprisonment. They just continue with their livelihood, this time within a justice institution, surrounded by minions and security. 

Convicts are not reformed. They stay convicts and are branded as such forever. There is no second chance in this life for them. There are only a few who escape with hard work and hope. This only attests to the failure of the network of cells designed and implemented by a blinded criminal justice system.

The corruption that plagues our bureaucracy is the worst in our prisons. Discretion in the granting of good time conduct allowances, hospital stays, and other varying benefits for inmates show the continuing subversion of “fairness.”

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So, what can be done?

First, the physical solution is to move the location of national prisons, which are currently embedded in dense, urban areas that make them more difficult to secure. Relocation can unlock properties that are underutilized to fund the transformation of prisons.

Second, the administrative fix is to implement the classification of inmates such that, among the 7 penal colonies all throughout the Philippines, each one can hold certain types of offenders to better understand and plan for their needs. For example, Iwahig Penal Colony in Palawan is relatively insulated and can be the recluse for those convicted of murders. Fines for property crimes or community service for minor offenses are also good developments.

Another administrative step is to allow inmates to commune with nature and do a good day’s work outdoors. Not only can these do wonders for the soul and spirit, but inmates can save up for their eventual release. Idleness within jail is not beneficial and can be harmful.

Third, the legislative action is to pass a simple and unified prison law. As with many parts of the justice system, over the years and with piecemeal laws passed by amateurs, agencies are fragmented and mandates are confused. These lead to efficiency bottlenecks and management problems.

The last solution requires a major rethinking of the treatment of criminals. Penology has not changed or innovated much for almost two hundred years. There can be other ways to view crime, to judge people, and to reform individuals.

A person who steals a kilo of rice to feed his family ought not to be punished in the same manner as a mayor who loots from the city’s budget. A monopolist who siphons billions from consumers and a drug lord who profits immensely from illicit goods can perhaps be dealt with similarly.

The failure of our prisons need not be final or fatal. There are alternatives to imprisonment as a penalty. But to reform prisoners, we must first change the prisons. –

Geronimo L. Sy is a former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Justice. He set up the Office of Cybercrime and the Office for Competition.