Group calls for mass release of elderly and political prisoners amid coronavirus threat

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 11 2020 02:38 PM

MANILA - A group of families and friends of political prisoners is calling for mass release of low-level offenders, as well as sick and old prisoners, amid growing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

The group KAPATID said the “Iran solution” of mass release of prisoners is the better solution, compared to a lockdown, to avoid COVID-19 epidemic in jails.

Iran had temporarily released 54,000 prisoners in early March to combat the spread of the virus.

“A lockdown will not solve the looming threat since this will deprive inmates of maintenance medicines that cannot be provided by the [Bureau of Corrections] and will only trigger more prison deaths, as clearly shown when 29 inmates at the NBP Muntinlupa died within 17 days due to illnesses as a result of the lockdown at the NBP during clearing operations in October last year,” KAPATID spokesperson Fides Lim said in a statement.

The head of the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) Hospital said in November that 1 inmate dies every day, describing the jail mortality rate in the national penitentiary as “critical.”

The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), meanwhile, recorded a death rate of 300 to 800 inmates a year, out of a jail population of 136,000 all over the country.

The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) on Tuesday suspended visitation privileges at the NBP and other BuCor-operated prisons and penal farms for 1 week starting March 11.

BuCor oversees detention of those serving sentences while BJMP manages the detention of those undergoing trial.

As of Dec. 2019, BuCor has a congestion rate of 302 percent among its 7 jails while BJMP has a 427 percent congestion in its 467 district, city and municipal jails, as of Jan. 2020.

GROUPS FOR RELEASE

Among the prisoners the group is calling for release are those accused of minor offenses and the “very elderly” and “very sick,” including political prisoners.

The group mentioned the cases of:

  •  Gerardo dela Peña, an 80-year-old human rights worker accused of murder who is allegedly spitting up blood at NBP
  •  Moreta Alegre, a 73-year-old Negros farmer jailed at the Correctional Institute for Women
  •  Jesus Alegre, a 74-year-old Negros farmer jailed at NBP
  •  Couple Virginia Villamor, 68, and Alberto Villamor, 65, who are also sickly and who were arrested because National Democratic Front peace consultant Vic Ladlad stayed in their house

Earlier reports indicate COVID-19 could be lethal to persons above 60 years old and suffering underlying chronic diseases.

“These prisoners pose little risk, imagined or real, so they should be released before the deadly COVID-19 invades congested prisons that neither have the facilities nor the capacity to control the spread of infection,” Lim said.

Lim is the wife of NDF consultant Vic Ladlad who was arrested in Nov. 2018 for illegal possession of firearms charges. Ladlad had said the evidence were planted.

"As families of political prisoners who do not even deserve a day in jail because their cases were trumped up, what we want to know are the prison measures being taken to monitor and to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 given that prison facilities direly lack not only medical personnel and medicines but also the most essential needs like clean water, adequate food and sanitary necessities such as soap and even alcohol, which is considered contraband,” Lim added.

BUCOR: NO INMATE WITH SYMPTOMS

BuCor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag on Tuesday allayed fears about the threat of COVID-19 in the agency’s facilities.

He said no inmate had so far shown any coronavirus symptoms and insisted that BuCor is well-equipped to handle the matter.

“Kaya naman 'yan… especially quarantine matters because it is already a secure and isolated place. 'Pag meron naman cases na can’t be handled by the NBP Hospital ay inililipat sa partner government hospital,” he explained.

(That’s manageable especially quarantine matters because it is already a secure and isolated place. If there are cases that can’t be handled by the NBP Hospital, we transfer them to a partner government hospital.)

The Department of Health (DOH) announced on Saturday that the Philippines is now under Code Red SubLevel 1 following a case of local transmission of COVID-19.

President Rodrigo Duterte declared a public health emergency on Monday.

There are now 33 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, as of Tuesday afternoon.