MANILA—President Rodrigo Duterte should declare a “prison emergency” and free sick, elderly, and other low-risk inmates to prevent a possible outbreak of the new coronavirus in the Philippines’ notoriously crowded jails, an advocacy group said Tuesday.
The group Prisoners’ Enhancement and Support Organization (PRESO) Inc. described the measure as an “extraordinary remedy” as the government struggles to contain COVID-19, which has killed at least 163 out of 3,660 infected patients in the country as of Monday.
Prison congestion in the Philippines is considered among the worst in the world, according to a 2018 PCIJ report.
Including those in prisons under the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), the total number is 215,000 inmates as of November last year, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The BuCor earlier reported a 310-percent congestion rate in all its facilities as of January this year, while the congestion in BJMP-run jails was at 534 percent as of March.
“The Philippines faces catastrophic public health problems in its horribly overcrowded prisons and jails in the coming weeks,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, said in a statement.
“For humanitarian reasons and to stop COVID-19 from spreading, authorities need to get ahead of this situation by undertaking early releases and making sure the country’s detention facilities are equipped to take on the coronavirus.”
PRESO said the “only effective response” would be to release “low-risk, non-violent, first-time prisoners and detainees through house arrest to prevent widespread contamination of the deadly COVID-19 in the congested prison system nationwide.”
“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 group said in an April 5 letter to Duterte.
Robertson cited the case of a 62-year-old father detained in January over drug charges whose transfer request to a separate facility was supposedly ignored. The man’s daughter was concerned he might contract the new coronavirus given his weakened immune system.
Among those that should be prioritized for release are detainees facing charges for bailable offenses such as gambling or theft of less than P1,000, especially those above 60 years old and suffering from illnesses, said Raymund Narag, a criminal justice professor at Southern Illinois University and a PRESO consultant.
“These are PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) 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,” he wrote.
Decongesting jails will require a process initiated by the BJMP informing the Supreme Court of health issues confronting such low-risk inmates and the elderly, who can then be identified by jail wardens nationwide based on a court circular, he said.
Based on a list, judges can then order the release of these inmates either on self-recognizance or by paying a P1 bail, he said.
“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,” he said.
"Releasing low-risk, first time, non-violent bailable offenders under this medical furlough remedy could be our best chance to avert this incoming tragedy.”