Bringing up the authority and responsibility of President Rodrigo Duterte as “Pater Familia,” the advocacy group Prisoners’ Enhancement and Support Organization Inc. or PRESO made an appeal to declare a prison and jail emergency in light of the COVID-19 crisis. In a formal request adressed to the country's leader, PRESO asked that non-violent elderly prisoners be permitted to serve their terms through house arrest, which would decongest correctional facilities.
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The group also asked for the compassionate release of detainees who are low-risk, non-violent, and have bailable pretrial status. They cited examples from all over the world as precedent, including decisions by the Indian, Israeli, Turkish, and Syrian governments to release, give amnesty to, or allow their prisoners to serve sentences on house arrest. They also cited the news of US President Donald Trump considering the release of elderly prisoners as well as the proposal of the Polish justice ministry to have more detainees to go on house arrest.
“In a very recent development, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) confirmed that one female officer assigned at Quezon City Jail tested positive for COVID 19,” the group writes in its statement. “While the BJMP Management has been diligently following all protocols and exerting all efforts to ensure that our jails are safe, this development could somehow cause alarm to the inmates and their families.”
Dated April 5, the plea was signed by some of PRESO’s leaders including its president Judge Aurora N. Recina, vice-president Rene V. Sarmento, executive director Teresita D. Gomez, and the chair of its consultants board Raymund E. Narag.
PRESO emphasize over and over again in the document that prisoners who are low-risk, non-violent, and nearing the completion of their sentences, and pretrial detainees who are low-risk, non-violent and bailable are the ones that should be qualified for house arrest, compassionate release, or self-recognizance. (Republic Act 10389 defines “Recognizance” as “a mode of securing the release of any person in custody or detention for the commission of an offense who is unable to post bail due to abject poverty.”)
“The declaration of a Prison and Jail Emergency is a purely political act for which he is responsible only to the people he serves,” the letter elaborates further.
The group also appealed and sent separate copies of their letter to the offices of Supreme Court Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, and House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano. “We are formally appealing to their kind offices to exercise their residual and oversight powers to address the problem of prison and jail congestion,” the statement goes, “or at least, to recommend to the President decisive action to decongest the prisons and jails.”
Time is of the essence when it comes to COVID-19, PRESO writes, and correctional facilities are extremely high-risk environments for its spread because of the high concentration of older and medically-fragile people who are in closed quarters and have limited hygiene supplies.
“The urgent intervention from your good office is direly needed to prevent illness and death which are certain to occur if the COVID-19 virus is allowed to take its natural course in the still-overcrowded prison system nationwide,” PRESO writes at the close of the letter. “Decisive and timely action is necessary since the life of an inmate is in your hands.”