“Please do not feed the animals.”
This might as well be the sign hung on Philippine prisons considering the P50-a-day food budget allowed prisoners and detainees, as well as the overcrowding and other subhuman conditions that seem to regard inmates as no better than beasts.
At a budget briefing last week with officials of the Department of Justice, an incredulous Sen. Loren Legarda asked how P50 could be stretched to cover three meals, given current food prices. Even Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre conceded that food supplies to prisoners were no better than animal feed.
The less charitable might think the pig-slop diet was intended to keep inmates thin and wasted—the better to fit more of them in the horribly overcrowded and cramped spaces that pass for the Philippines’ prisons.
According to data from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, detention centers are on the average at 380 percent overcapacity, with the most congested jails reaching an overcapacity level of more than 2,000 percent. In actual body count, that means that if the female dormitory in the Quezon City Jail is holding 504 detainees, yet its rated capacity is only for 56, then it is 800-percent overcrowded.
The New Bilibid Prisons houses 22,403 inmates yet its capacity is only at 8,460, equivalent to a congestion rate of 164 percent, the Bureau of Corrections said in its budget report to the House appropriations committee.
The jails are so congested that inmates are standing most of the time, and take turns lying down to sleep. A recent photo of the Quezon City Jail shows every square inch of the open-air basketball court filled with inmates in all manner of posture trying to find some semblance of sleep.
But then again, one might ask, why should life be made comfortable for these felons? Doesn’t justice demand that the wicked rot in prison? That’s why they’re called penal colonies: Criminals are supposed to be penalized, to suffer for their mistakes and pay their debt to society. Isn’t this what they deserve, after all? How else make them swear off a life of crime?
Except that in these parts, the notoriously slow justice system has made it possible for the just and the innocent to be trapped in a hellhole cheek by jowl with the wicked and the murderous. Under this justice system, those charged with a crime and who are too poor to post bail are put behind bars while awaiting trial. And that can take years, as criminal cases pile up faster than they can be tried. The courts are clogged with too many cases and too few judges; corrupt and incompetent investigators and prosecutors can further delay the trial.
The Duterte administration’s war on drugs bodes ill as well for inmates. With 12,920 alleged drug pushers arrested and 626,368 surrenderers between July 1 and Aug. 30, expect even more warm bodies to bring jail conditions to a boiling, roiling soup of extreme overcrowding, lack of running water, primitive toilets, substandard meals—and gang wars.
With some 1,900 alleged drug users and pushers killed in official antidrug operations, mostly “in self-defense,” according to the police, one wonders if the coup de grace was the convenient act to avoid adding to the already-bursting-at-the-seams inmate population in the jails.
Holding people in cramped spaces is cruel and inhuman punishment that is dangerous to health and human life. It breeds diseases, breaks down discipline, and exacerbates tensions. Having to fight for air and space 24 hours a day can make prison life a living hell.
Reforming the prisons certainly needs a bigger budget—to improve the quality of food, clean up the facilities, provide livelihood skills, productive pursuits and leisure, and include more prosecutors and trial judges in the criminal justice system.
The Supreme Court’s resolution on May 18 that limits trials to only 180 days is a good start, with judges prioritizing cases where defendants are minors or too poor to post bail.
The need to make prison conditions more humane is not just an affirmation of the Constitution and several international treaties to which the Philippines is a signatory; it is also recognition that the correctional system is meant to rehabilitate inmates and give them another chance to be part of mainstream society once more as productive social beings.
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