[People] Save the Children, Reform the Prison System – Fr. Shay Cullen

by Fr. Shay Cullen

Despite all the problems in the Philippine courts and prosecution system where judges have outrageously ordered that children trafficked, raped and abused be returned to their pimps by the abuse of the Habeas Corpus law, good judges release minors from degrading prison conditions for transfer to healthy rehabilitation centres.

Success in the campaign for freedom of children in sub-human prison conditions where their human rights are violated daily is gaining ground in the experience of the PREDA Foundation. (www.preda.org) hundreds of minors have been rescued by the foundation’s social workers with the court orders of good judges who implement the Juvenile Justice and Welfare law. Minors younger than 15 years old and below are not to be criminally charged under this law but are to be diverted to rehabilitation programmes for counseling and character formation. Others, where municipal social workers can determine that the minors over 15 years-old have done a criminal act without discernment can also be diverted to a rehabilitation centre while the prosecutor decides the case. This prevents the incarceration of these youngsters in prisons where they are influenced by the hardened criminals even if they are now kept in separate cells.

However in many municipalities the police frequently detain the minors over 15 years-old in overcrowded holding cells with other adults accused of crimes. The big change is that rarely do they jail those kids under fifteen. This is a big development. In the past, kids as young as 6 years old were jailed and we must never forget these violations of children’s rights and how easily it became a regular practice. In some municipalities the police turn the street kids in conflict with the law over to the municipal social welfare office. They have no facilities and are incapable of dealing with the children and some even lock them up in overcrowded makeshift cells until the social worker can identify them and find their parents which is a near impossible task considering the slums where the shacks and hovels are piled on top of each other without street names or addresses.

The positive developments since the passing of the Juvenile Justice bill and the non-stop work of PREDA social workers helping release children from prison and giving them a chance for a new life of dignity and healing has seen remarkable success. This shameful practice of jailing small children and teenagers while still innocent until proven guilty as seen in the past by these photos on our web site shows that we can never return to this phase of child abuse and must continue to campaign to stop its continued practice in some police jails and detention centers. The photos show how blatant was and is the violation of the human rights of children by the authorities against all the conventions and protocols signed by the Philippine government to protect children’s rights.

While some government officials would like to ban and remove these photos from our website since they are an embarrassment and evidence of government neglect, and we need them to help parents and social workers to identify them as lost and missing children and return them to their parents. Besides, they are evidence of human rights violations and should not be censored. Until there is a national database of missing children there is no other way to find missing, abducted or lost children.

But let us not forget that it happened on a large scale and still happens to a lesser degree. But we cannot forget and continue the fight for the protection of human rights and show that the Philippines must never tolerate such practice ever again. We cannot rewrite this sad history but we can build a brighter future for children in conflict with the law.

There are some police and politicians that would favour repealing the law protecting child form arbitrary detention and changing back to the law to hold minors younger than 15 years liable for prosecution and detention. The good news is that the Aquino Government is getting serious about prison reform. It will benefit minors and we give full support to the progressive moves to reform the prison system where children are at times still jailed with adults. The most congested jails in Metro Manila are the Quezon City jail, with a congestion rate of 295 percent; followed by the Las Piñas City jail, 259 percent; and the Manila City jail, 195 percent. Camp Karingal’s Female Dormitory was found 197 percent crammed, while the Paranaque City jail was 132 percent packed.

It is urgent to change this horrific situation of prisoners and treat them as human beings with rights and dignity despite their crimes. Above all children must never be jailed. There are other positive ways to help and treat them.

(Fr. Shay’s columns are published in The Manila Times,
in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)


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