The Philippine government placed the entire Metro Manila under “Enhanced Community Quarantine.” The Philippine Supreme Court issued a circular suspending all court hearings. The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) has suspended all jail visitations nationwide. These are all pre-emptive steps to slow down the spread of the CoViD-19 virus that infected hundreds of people in the Philippines and hundreds of thousands worldwide.
Indeed, one of the most susceptible areas to the spread of the virus is the jails and prisons. With an overcrowding rate of 350%, the Philippines has the most congested correctional system in the world. If one of the PDLs gets infected in the congested jails, it could be a catastrophe. Our jail staff would be tremendously strained to handle the infection once it starts. Despite their best efforts and even in normal circumstances, they lack medical facilities and doctors to handle routine health problems. We have recently witnessed jail unrest in more resource-endowed jail and prison facilities in Italy and the USA. We are not sure what the outcome would be if similar unrest began in the Philippines correctional system.
Temporary relief could be the granting of medical furlough to the first time, low risk, non-violent, and bailable offenders for humanitarian considerations. PDLs who are charged with offenses such as gambling, theft of less than a thousand pesos, drug use, etc., especially those who are old (above 60 years old) and sickly, could be prioritized for release. These are PDLs that if with money and resources, could have bailed out, and could have been released. But, largely due to poverty, they are languishing in our jails while undergoing prolonged trials.
The BJMP could initiate the process by writing a letter to the Supreme Court on its assessment of the current jail health capacities. The Supreme Court-Office of Court Administrator could then utilize this as a basis for corrective action. A Supreme Court Circular could then be issued where the jail wardens nationwide would be able to identify first-time, low risk, non-violent, bailable offenders for release. The Public Attorney’s Office could also make a national pleading on behalf of all the PDLs, similar to what was done in other jurisdictions. The list could then be submitted to the respective judges, and the judges, using their sound discretion could release the PDLs on their own self-recognizance, or even on a “One-Peso Bail.” As a condition, the PDLs could provide a promise to appear on the court-appointed dates. The wardens would get their addresses and the contact information of their relatives for monitoring.
These low-risk PDLs are no threat to public safety. Releasing them would ease the over-congestion in our jails. This would give a better chance for our jail staff to concentrate their resources on recidivists, higher risk, violent and non-bailable offenders (who are also still presumed innocent). By keeping them all in jail at the moment places them in a susceptible condition to acquire the CoViD-19 virus. In our over-congested jail, this will be tantamount to a death sentence. Releasing low risk, first time, non-violent bailable offenders under this medical furlough remedy could be our best chance to avert this incoming tragedy.
It is just a matter of time.
Raymund E. Narag, PhD
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Clarke Jones, PhD
Australian National University
Photos were taken by Jean-Paul Caelen
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