Heinous prisons

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Philippine prisons are as abhorrent as the crimes — rape, kidnapping and murder, among others — some Filipinos have committed or have been accused of.

In 2018 there were 933 prisons in the Philippines with a total population of some 188,000. That number may not look unusual — until one learns that more than 75 percent of those in prison have not been convicted or even tried, and are still awaiting trial. Some 50 percent of the detainees in this category have been in jail for over 250 days, or for nine excruciating, seemingly endless months.

These are among the findings of a study (“Understanding Factors Related to Prolonged Trial of Detained Defendants in the Philippines”) by Raymund Narag, an assistant professor of criminology at the Southern Illinois University.

But most Filipinos are already familiar with the hellish conditions in Philippine prisons, among them their being crammed to the rafters with inmates. Some of the country’s jails hold a number of prisoners four, five, many times their capacities. The congestion makes the spread of communicable diseases almost certain.

Some jails are flooded during the rainy season and stiflingly hot during the dry. Prisoners have no place to sleep in many municipal jails except the floor, the stairs or whatever space is available. Some have died of various illnesses or the afflictions of old age after having been in prison for decades.

The overwhelming majority in the country’s prisons are poor folk who can’t afford bail and/or the pricey lawyers who sell their skills mostly to the rich, and hence can’t secure their temporary liberty while they’re on trial or waiting for their day in court. Some have spent years in prison for stealing food or for snatching cellphones. Still others have been convicted by incompetent judges, or are in jail because they confessed under torture to crimes they did not commit, or on the mistaken assumption that they would be released once they do so.

Like the entrance to Dante’s Inferno, the gates of Philippine prisons might as well warn all who enter them to abandon all hope. But as in many other areas of life in these isles of despair, this warning applies only to the poor and powerless. 

Even if they do somehow get convicted of rape or murder, the wealthy and well-connected need not despair. Philippine prisons are not only the subject of shocked accounts in the foreign press. They are also microcosms of the rigid stratification of Philippine society. They are enclaves in which rich and powerful inmates can come and go as they please no matter what the crime they have been convicted of. They can construct and air condition mini-condos, indulge their worst vices, and even bribe their way out. Some of those accused and even convicted of such crimes as graft and plunder are spared their horrors and detained, if at all, in special prisons or in the comfort of “hospital arrest.”

Convicted of several counts of graft, Ferdinand Marcos’ widow Imelda is yet to spend a single hour in any of the prisons to which her late husband sent thousands from 1972 to 1986. Ramon Revilla, Jr., now a senator of the Republic, has been acquitted of plunder, but has nevertheless been asked to return the amounts involved in the pork barrel scam he was accused of benefiting from. Former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who survived the physical rigors of the 2016 campaign, is similarly accused of plunder — but is even weighing in on the GCTA scandal while on temporary liberty supposedly because he’s in poor health.

The rotten state of the country’s prisons and justice system is the context in which the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) scandal over the implementation of the law on Good Conduct and Time Allowance (GCTA—Republic Act 10592) broke some two weeks ago. Like the many other issues that haunt the Duterte regime — the sheer incompetence and corruption of many of its accomplices, the human  rights violations, the extrajudicial killings, the attacks on the independent press, the surrender of Philippine sovereignty to Chinese interests, etc., etc. — that scandal refuses to go away, despite the attempt of regime allies, agents and collaborators to evade responsibility for the corruption in the agency dismissed Director General Nicanor Faeldon and company at least tolerated if they did not benefit from it. The regime and its cronies instead want the public to blame detained Senator Leila de Lima and the Liberal Party’s Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, who put together the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of RA 10592.

Congressional hearings are supposed to be in aid of legislation. But the Senate hearings on the subject chaired by Duterte ally Richard Gordon were obviously not held for that purpose. Rather were they one more attempt at whitewashing the culpability of the regime’s appointees and the regime itself that is once more demonstrating how far incompetence and corruption has metastasized throughout government during the Duterte watch. They could have addressed, but did not, both the corruption and other issues in BuCor and the New Bilibid Prison as well as the putrid state of the country’s prisons, which Narag points out has worsened because of the Duterte regime’s failed, failing, and fake “war on drugs.” 

That “war,” says Narag, has not only contributed to the jam-packing of Philippine prisons through the arrest and surrender of tens of thousands of suspected drug users and pushers. It has also made Filipinos buy into the regime narrative that rather than imprisonment, much less rehabilitation, such brutal means as the extrajudicial killings that have been the regime’s preferred “solution” to the drug problem are more likely to work.

In 2014, Narag had already identified what  factors are responsible for the abomination known as the Philippine prison system.  Among them, he told the online news site Rappler, are the deficiencies in their facilities and the government focus on finding someone to blame for its problems rather than addressing them. Instead, there are frequent changes in who heads  BuCor.  Former Duterte Special Assistant, now Senator Christopher “Bong” Go’s response to the BuCor scandal was typical. He suggested that “a  killer “ was needed to replace Faeldon. Not only did that suggestion — which Mr. Duterte apparently took seriously — imply that what’s needed in BuCor is another Duterte assassin. It also evaded addressing the corruption and other issues that not only Narag but other analysts of the penal system have long noted, among them that the system further hardens criminality  rather than reforms those who still have some humanity left.

Every inmate’s humanity is in fact  the first casualty of prison life in the Philippines. Here is a description, from a New York Times report, of what it’s like to be poor, powerless and in a jail in the Philippines that might as well be another circle in Dante’s hell:

“On one recent night at (the Manila City Jail), the air was thick and putrid with the sweat of 518 men crowded into a space meant for 170. The inmates were cupped into each other, limbs draped over a neighbor’s waist or knee, feet tucked against someone else’s head, too tightly packed to toss and turn in the sweltering heat.”

In a 2018 report, the Commission on Audit (COA) pointed out that “congestion in jails leads not only to health and sanitation problems but also to increased gang affiliation of inmates. To survive, inmates hold on to gangs (in which) they find protection, a network of social support, and access to material benefits.”

Among many other abominations, this is what the rule of the most corrupt and most incompetent political class in Asia has wrought — and be warned: there’s more to come.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Image by Marko Lovric on Pixabay.

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