Prison reform needed
Let’s be realistic. Even tough men would cry when faced with the horrific prospect of ending up inside a Philippine jail, so it wasn’t surprising to hear that lawyer Gigi Reyes broke into tears when she learned she would be committed to the Quezon City Jail while on trial for her suspected involvement in the pork barrel scam. For now, however, she is staying all by herself in the basement of the Sandiganbayan building in Quezon City while the antigraft court awaits a report it ordered from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology on the condition and security of the jail’s women’s dormitory.
The 23.5-square-meter Sandiganbayan cell is relatively new. It was ordered built by the court in December 2013 as part of the government’s “gender sensitivity and development” program, where male and female prisoners would have separate detention facilities. Reyes has the luck—or the political clout—to be the first prisoner to enjoy the room, which has a single bed, a small kitchen sink, a toilet, and a ceiling fan—though it was broken so a stand fan had to be brought in. Reyes is provided with food worth P30 per meal, though her visitors are allowed to bring in more.
The current setup is doubtless an ultraspartan shock for Reyes, she of the lavish parties and upscale lifestyle worthy of the powerful chief of staff (and rumored longtime paramour) of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, a former Senate president and now her coaccused in the pork-barrel case along with 54 other persons. But the conditions she is enjoying now, while severely circumscribed, will prove to be a luxury compared to what awaits her at the Quezon City Jail.
There, Reyes will be crammed into a facility built to house only 56 persons, but which now has 504 inmates—a congestion rate that’s about 800 percent. While the daily meal allowance is a bit higher at P50, she will have to forego a bed and sleep on the floor. She will have to wear a uniform of yellow T-shirt and brown pants, and queue for daily baths in a communal bathroom (inmates scheduled for court hearings have priority to use the facility).
No wonder she wept, according to reports, when told what awaited her.
The law, of course, should be followed, especially in the case of Reyes who is neither an elected official nor a state witness: no special treatment for prisoners. The public is understandably outraged that high-profile suspects such as Senators Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada are being held in clean, spacious, furnished facilities and not in a regular prison along with ordinary jailbirds—and despite their macho declarations that they’re ready for imprisonment in defense of their innocence. Once brought to his special quarters, however, Revilla whined about the heat, rats and cockroaches. Estrada, meanwhile, flouted the rules by hosting a big, rowdy party days into his detention.
The unjust reality of two systems—one for the hapless poor, the other for the moneyed and powerful—finds no greater illustration than in the kid-gloves treatment the high-profile suspects in the pork-barrel controversy are enjoying. But one need not be sympathizers of Estrada, Revilla, Reyes et al. to understand, at a fundamental level, their apparent terror at the prospect of spending time in a regular jail. The Philippine prison system, after all, is a hellhole where any humane notion of reform and rehabilitation is waylaid by conditions of the most nasty, brutish, miserable kind.
According to a 2011 report by the Department of Interior and Local Government, local jails are congested by an average of 400 percent. The Manila City Jail, for example, was built to hold 1,000 inmates but had 5,300 in that year. Muntinlupa was about 500 percent over its normal operating capacity. The overcrowding inevitably leads to inadequate food and water, sleeping spaces, toilet facilities, timely medical attention and the like. Political prisoners fare worse, with torture added to the mix by their handlers. Moneyed inmates, meanwhile, are able to bribe their way into better facilities and even to wangle the privilege of slipping in and out of prison as they wish.
The inhumane conditions of our prisons are crying out for reform—not least because only the poor and powerless seem to be at the receiving end of such criminal neglect.
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