Injustice in justice
Hell is behind bars.
Philippine penal law is hinged on the principles of both retributive and restorative justice.
On one hand, the theory of retributive justice is characterized by human free will as basis of criminal liability, establishing a direct proportion between crime and penalty.
This echoes the concept of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
On the other hand, the theory of restorative justice posits that crime is essentially a social and natural phenomenon, wherein man is subdued by a tendency that compels him to do wrong.
The latter system believes in the inherent good of the accused, and as such aims for the latter’s reformation.
Restorative theory served as the backbone of several amendments on the 85-year-old Revised Penal Code. These enactments include the Indeterminate Sentence Law and the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act.
Although the Philippine penal system advocates restorative justice, the harsh conditions in Philippine jails do not provide the kind of environment that will allow the intended correction, as we saw in a recent visit to a jail.
The preconditioned image of a prison cell has not improved. It still mirrors a can of sardines where half-naked men with their arms and legs folded are pressed next to each other. A single cell houses more than 100 inmates, giving just enough space to breathe if each is lying on his side.
This scenario takes the word “airtight” in a literal sense. And this reality is reflected in the 2017 report by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
The total jail population reached 131,530, although the ideal capacity is only at 20,399 inmates; in other words, there is a congestion or overcrowding rate of 544 percent.
Likewise, this figure is echoed in the World Prison Brief prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, which ranks the Philippines first in Asia, and second in the world, to have the highest occupancy level in prisons.
With this impoverished reality, inmates in a minimum security prison make use of other spaces such as staircases and open courts for sleeping and recreation, even if such spots hardly provide much comfort and room as well.
Inmates stricken with diseases are confined in an open infirmary, which is only a few steps away from the cells. There is no room for isolation, putting at risk the health of the other prisoners. Sepsis, skin diseases, pneumonia and flu are some of the illnesses of which prisoners incessantly complain.
Even the most basic hygiene kits are not provided. Prisoners make use of every meager source with efficiency. They bathe in open courts while simultaneously washing their sando or yellow shirts with the same water.
When there is a downpour, the jail does not provide much shelter due to the numerous leaks in the roof. And there is not much ventilation, so that when the heat is staggering, an unbearable stench is produced.
In such circumstances, tensions are likely to arise, leading to occasional eruptions of violence among the inmates. Some say that other inmates become mentally ill and fall into depression. Others sought relief in death, contemplating suicide as the solution to ease their plight.
Indeed, to live in such conditions is tantamount to not living at all. Hell is found in each cell, not because of the accused that makes the place an infernal region, but because of the insufferable conditions that stoke shame and misery.
This circumstance is enough to constitute a ponderous punishment, as if the fact that one’s liberty has been taken away does not suffice. There is no beauty in such despair, and we are left to relive “The Ninth Hour” on hearing the inmates questioning why they have been forsaken in such a destitute place.
Appallingly, the detainees suffer the same fate as that of the convicts, and it is made worse considering that their stay may be prolonged as it takes months for hearings to progress and years before trials are decided.
Even more striking is how unperturbed some jail visitors are by the unlivable conditions. With the war on drugs waged by the administration, the inmates themselves believe that it is better to live in such a hell than to be another cadaver — a victim of “Tokhang.”
The apathy toward convicts, specifically in drug-related cases, is echoed in the President’s own remarks. This indifference and scant sympathy may have played a significant factor in the slow progress of prison-reform initiatives.
We should all be reminded that the justice system has been set to take away the freedom of the accused, as a means for both punishment and reformation. But in these conditions, the dignity inherent in a person is also stripped away.
We are far from the cause of anchoring penal management to a restorative justice system. Imprisonment and fines are intended to alter wrong behavior and, at best, deliver a renewed person after such punishments. But does this happen?
With the enactment of Republic Act No. 10951, which increases the fines imposed under the Revised Penal Code, the government is reminded to relieve the situation in prisons.
The Department of Justice, the Bureau of Corrections and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology must be equipped with the necessary tools and programs to address the worsening correctional system.
Article II of the 1987 Constitution particularly provides that the state values the dignity of every person and guarantees full respect for human rights.
This is echoed in Article II of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the Philippines is a signatory, and which states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
It is one thing to impose the penalty of loss of freedom on the accused, and quite another to take away the inherent dignity of the human soul imprisoned in the sinner.
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Michiko S. Lopez, 24, is a law student at the University of Asia and the Pacific.
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