While the nation was distracted by the shenanigans of a show biz family, a “humanitarian crisis” has erupted at New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City, where 29 inmates died from Oct. 9 to 25.
Dolores Pangilinan, wife of an inmate and head of the Samahan
ng mga Pamilya na Nasa Death Row, used that description last week to bewail the disturbing news that eight of the inmates allegedly died due to dehydration and the lack of basic necessities and proper medical attention.
The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) was said to have cut off the delivery of clean water, destroyed prisoners’ sleeping quarters, made it more difficult for inmates to receive prescription from their families, and suspended visitation rights, as part of the “intensive clearing operations” launched by new BuCor chief Director General Gerald Bantag to rid the national penitentiary of illegal drugs and other contraband.
The crackdown has, however, appeared to have worsened the already subhuman conditions endured by NBP prisoners. The UK-based World Prison Brief, which collates information about prison systems globally, said that as of May 2018, the Philippines had the world’s most overcrowded prison system, with occupancy at an astronomical 463.6 percent.
This means that while the total prison system can only officially accommodate 40,610 inmates, there are over 188,000 crammed into the seven national prisons, and the 926 city, district, municipal and provincial jails. Three out of four of these inmates — whose crimes range from simple theft to murder and drug-dealing — are still awaiting their rightful day in court.
The Duterte administration’s war on drugs would balloon the prison population some more, leading to jail scenes straight out of Dante’s Inferno. The New York Times reported in January that in Dorm 5 of 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.”
Ernesto Tamayo, director for health services of the Bilibid hospital, confirmed during a Senate hearing in September that the conditions of the hospital were so wretched that it was designated as a mere infirmary, because the facilities failed to meet international standards and even earned the condemnation of international bodies such as the United Nations.
Water is available only for an hour in the morning and in the afternoon. There are no showers; instead, drums are filled with water, which is in chronic short supply. The hospital can only provide first aid and cannot even treat stab wounds. The intermittent supply of power, meanwhile, has plunged the detention cells into hell-like conditions.
This dismal environment has led to the death of roughly 20 percent, or one of every five, maximum security inmates at the NBP every year, according to Tamayo, mainly due to the extreme congestion that fosters the quick spread of communicable diseases such as pulmonary tuberculosis.
Specifically, more than 450 inmates under police custody have died during the Duterte administration, per a report by the Internal Affairs Service of the Philippine National Police. That number includes the eight inside NBP who died allegedly due to dehydration.
Bantag has downplayed the alarming spike in the death toll. His reputation for harshness, however, precedes him; Bantag still faces 10 counts of murder due to a jail blast in August 2016 that left 10 prisoners dead at the Parañaque City Jail when he was its warden. And not long into his new job, another blast rocked part of the maximum security compound as the clearing operations commenced.
For Bantag, there is no humanitarian crisis in Bilibid; the accounts are “exaggerated,” he said, and “many were already dying” even before the crackdown that led to the denial of the prisoners’ visitation rights, which started Oct. 9 and is supposed to be lifted today.
Still, 29 prisoners dying within a 17-day period is a grisly record and, precisely because of Bantag’s default tack to summarily dismiss the cries of the prisoners’ relatives, this matter deserves to be looked into with an independent, compassionate eye by the Senate.
Convicts, prisoners and persons deprived of liberties are, under the law, still entitled to protection from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. A slew of dead prisoners at the start of the reign of a new BuCor chief seems to be an ominous sign that the Philippines’ penal hellhole is about to get even worse.
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