Decrepit, congested and subhuman
The brouhaha over the transfer of Janet Lim Napoles and Jessica “Gigi” Reyes, who are accused of plunder related to the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam, to the detention facilities of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) in Bicutan, Taguig City, brought to public focus the decrepit, congested and subhuman condition of our jails.
Jails for the high-profile. Since Sept. 1, 2013, Napoles had been confined at the tolerable facilities of Fort Santo Domingo in Santa Rosa, Laguna, upon orders of the Makati Regional Trial Court where she is facing trial for the serious illegal detention (or kidnapping) of Benhur Luy, the principal whistle-blower in the multibillion-peso PDAF mess.
However, the Sandiganbayan, a higher court in the judicial hierarchy, ordered her confinement at the BJMP jail because Fort Santo Domingo “is not a detention facility for those facing trial.” Napoles is charged with serious illegal detention and plunder, which are both “nonbailable.”
On the other hand, Reyes was originally detained at the basement of the Sandiganbayan building in Quezon City, in a 23-square-meter cell equipped with a single bed, a small kitchen sink, a toilet and an electric fan. She was the first occupant of this new facility built in December 2013.
A few hours after her transfer to the congested BJMP female dormitory, Reyes suffered a “panic attack,” hypertension and neurocirculatory asthenia, prompting her jailers to rush her to the Taguig-Pateros District Hospital and, later, to the Philippine Heart Center in Quezon City. Allegedly, she abhorred the prospect of being cooped up with suspected female members of the New People’s Army.
Reyes wanted to be moved to the much more comfortable PNP Custodial Center where Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla, who are also charged with plunder, are confined. Her coaccused, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, is detained at the PNP General Hospital due to his advanced age (90 years) and frail health.
Government prosecutors have lately asked the SBN to transfer both Estrada and Revilla to a regular jail. The two lawmakers objected, arguing they “are not hardened criminals.” Being “high-profile” inmates who need more security, they are allegedly entitled to be confined at the PNP Custodial Center.
Jails for the no-profile. On the other hand, ordinary accused are detained in decrepit city and provincial jails that are overcrowded by an average of 400 percent. Specifically, jail warden Elena Rocamora told the Sandiganbayan that the female dormitory in the Quezon City Jail, where prosecutors originally wanted Reyes to be detained, is crammed with 504 detainees, yet its rated capacity is only for 56; it is 800-percent overcrowded.
Elsewhere, the overcrowding is the same. The Manila City Jail, built to hold 1,000 inmates, actually houses over 5,000. It is so congested that inmates stand up most of the time, and take turns to lie down to sleep. Minors, who should be under the care of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), are mixed with murder suspects.
Detainees sleep on the cement floor, wear uniforms of yellow T-shirts and brown pants, make do with a daily meal allowance (for breakfast, lunch and dinner) of P50, and line up for hours in communal toilet/baths.
May I stress that detainees in city and provincial jails are not convicted felons; they are put behind bars, either because they are charged with capital offenses or, more often, even though charged with bailable crimes, they are unable to produce the needed bail bond due to sheer poverty or plain ignorance of their right to bail.
The BJMP, which is under the Department of Interior and Local Government, manages the detention facilities while the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), under the Department of Justice, runs the National Penitentiary and other correctional institutions where convicts by final judgments are held.
Reforms needed. Needless to say, reforms are urgently needed to alleviate these subhuman conditions. Convicts are “luckier” than the presumed innocents because a year ago, on May 24, 2013, President Aquino signed into law Republic Act No. 10575 that upgraded the BuCor’s prison facilities, increased the number and pay of prison guards, and established the Philippine Prisons Academy to educate prisoners and guards.
To decongest the BJMP’s jails, the Supreme Court issued a resolution last May 18 limiting trials to only 180 days. (See my July 13 column for details.) In addition to the speedy implementation of this time limit, trial judges should prioritize the cases of detainees, especially of minors, who cannot post bail. Many times, they are detained longer than the prescribed penalty for the offenses they are charged with.
Of course, jail wardens should turn over minors to the DSWD and should not mix them with recidivists. They should not forget that detention prisoners are not convicts. They are detained only to ensure their presence in court (for those charged with capital offenses) or, to repeat, only for their inability to post bail bonds (for those charged with bailable crimes) due to poverty or ignorance of their right to bail.
Compelling and urgent is the need to build more and better detention facilities worthy of human dignity, remembering always that the average conviction rate of prosecutors is only about 20 percent. Thus, a vast majority of detention prisoners have a more-than-even chance of being acquitted. Yet, they are unjustly deprived of their liberty.
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