Humanity behind bars
“I’d rather get killed than get jailed,” Marvin, a 19-year-old street vendor, told me, as I was doing ethnographic research in an urban poor community near Metro Manila. He had heard “horror stories” from his peers and seen the TV reports. “In jail, you get raped even if you’re a guy,” he adds. “They will make you a slave. There’s no place to sleep. They’re treated worse than animals.”
Marvin’s preference is not always shared by my other interlocutors, some of whom see jail as a refuge from death; the lesser of two evils. Even so, they all see getting jailed as a dreadful (and very real) prospect, and their fears are well-founded.
In the first place, our custodial facilities suffer from severe congestion, a condition powerfully captured by the photographer Noel Celis. The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology’s own data indicates an overcapacity of 600 percent — but this is even worse in some places. Quezon City Jail, for instance, had a population of 3,911 at one point, despite a bed capacity of only 286; the inmates had to take turns sleeping, affirming Marvin’s concern.
Meanwhile, fears of physical and sexual abuse are validated by various accounts — from the recent “sex-for-freedom” cases to the work of the sociologist Filomin Candaliza-Gutierrez charting the role of various pangkat (gangs) in everyday prison life. While drug lords manage to enjoy well-off lifestyles in prison, those arrested for allegedly selling tiny sachets of “shabu” or a few sticks of marijuana live in misery.
Related to the above, there is a serious concern over the spread of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in custodial facilities, on top of the risk of infections like tuberculosis due to overcrowding. As Dr. Lee Yarcia of NoBox Philippines pointed out in an International Drug Policy Consortium briefing paper, there is little to no effort exerted to prevent sexual violence in jails, provide access to contraceptives, and address HIV and other STIs.
The death of Genesis Argoncillo — arrested for the absurd “crime” of not wearing a shirt — further underscores the lethal risks of incarceration. Whether or not his death was due to “difficulty of breathing” as the Philippine National Police initially claimed, or due to inmate violence as the PNP itself later asserted, his unacceptable fate speaks of jails as dangerous places.
“But they deserve it — it’s just right that they’re jailed!” many would say. “Why are you so concerned about the plight of those criminals? Shouldn’t you be more concerned about their victims?”
To those who invoke these inane arguments, I must point out the fact that the people in jail have not even been convicted of any crime. Many are still awaiting trial, and many end up being acquitted — but only after years in jail. If anything, their predicament points to another problem: a slow and corrupt justice system.
Even if they are guilty, in many cases, they can become productive members of society if given the opportunity to do so: This is the whole point of the “restorative justice” paradigm enshrined in our laws (e.g. Republic Act No. 9344, Section 2). Unfortunately, our government seems more interested in jailing the people our society failed, rather than the people who failed us.
To be fair, some jail officials are trying to improve the welfare of the people under their custody, while many groups and even some lawmakers have been pushing for criminal justice reform. Unfortunately, there’s so much prejudice against, and so little empathy for, the people in jail that such efforts are unlikely to find popular or presidential support. To make things worse, the government is even moving to the opposite direction, attempting to lower the age of criminal liability. This is “penal populism” (Pratt, 2007) at its worst, benefiting only the political careers of those who manage to turn society against the poor and the marginalized.
Who will care for the people in jail, and recognize the humanity behind bars? Those who ignore this question may find themselves in the majority, but they cannot delude themselves that they are contributing to our nation’s progress. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
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