MANILA – Twenty-two inmates from different jails in Metro Manila urged the Supreme Court Wednesday to allow their temporary release as they faced the threat of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spreading in crowded jails.
The inmates -- political prisoners and detainees who are elderly, sick or pregnant -- cited their vulnerability to contract the virus, invoking compassion and humanitarian considerations.
“Petitioners are praying for a fair chance at surviving the devastating impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in spaces that are not blighted with overcrowding and lack of access to hygiene measures and medical care,” they said in their petition.
“If the Honorable Court has applied equity to prevent unjust enrichment or to afford litigants full ventilation of their causes, it can certainly do the same for a far more persuasive reason: to extend the humanity of the law to petitioners amidst the raging pandemic,” they added.
Among the petitioners are National Democratic Front of the Philippines consultants Rey Claro Casambre, Vicente Ladlad, Renante Gamara, Francisco Fernandez, Jr. and Adelberto Silva.
The other petitioners are:
Dionisio Almonte, peasant organizer
Ireneo Atadero, Jr., labor union organizer
Alexander Ramonita Birondo, suspected Communist Party of the Philippines leader
Winona Marie Birondo, suspected CPP leader
Ferdinand Castillo, activist
Ediesel Legaspi, agriculturist and organic farmer
Emmanuel Bacarra, alleged NPA commander
Oliver Rosales, former government workers' organizer
Norberto Murillo, peasant leader
Reina Mae Nasino, Bayan Muna activist
Dario Tomada, peasant leader
Oscar Belleza, peasant leader
Lilia Bucatcat, former peasant organizer in Samar
All, except for Bucatcat, are still undergoing trial waiting for their sentence.
They are facing varying charges ranging from illegal possession of firearms to murder charges over their alleged involvement in the supposed NPA purge in the late '80s, a mass grave from which was discovered in Inopacan, Leyte in 2006.
RECOGNIZANCE OR BAIL
The inmates asked the high court to grant their release either through recognizance or by posting bail.
Recognizance is a mode of securing the release of arrested or detained persons who cannot post bail due to poverty by entrusting them to the custody of qualified members of the barangay, city or municipality.
Relying on a previous Supreme Court decision allowing former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile to post bail on humanitarian grounds, the inmates said they are also not flight risks as they are “old, frail and sickly, and unlike Enrile, do not have the resources to evade trial by fleeing especially during the enhanced community quarantine being strictly imposed.”
Enrile, released in 2015, is facing trial for supposedly non-bailable plunder charges for his alleged role in the multibillion-peso Priority Development Assistance Fund scam.
The inmates also asked the SC to create a prisoner release committee to study and implement the release of all other prisoners and for the Court to issue ground rules on the release of eligible prisoners.
Named as respondents are the People of the Philippines, the heads of the Interior and Justice departments, the Jail Management and Penology and Corrections bureaus, and the wardens of the jails where the inmates are held – Metro Manila District Jail 4, Taguig, Manila, New Bilibid Prison-West, and the Correctional Institute for Women.
The petition cited studies from London-based World Prison Brief, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Time Magazine indicating the Philippines as having one of the worst prison populations in the world.
As of March 19, BJMP has a 534% congestion rate in its 467 jails, according to ICRC, while Danish group DIGNITY noted low government budget and medical supplies in prison facilities, which, coupled with overcrowding, led to thousands of inmates dying each year due to pulmonary diseases.
“People deprived of their liberty, such as people in prisons, are likely to be more vulnerable to various diseases and conditions,” the petition said, quoting the World Health Organization which attributed this to close proximity in jails and the fact that people in prisons typically have the greater underlying burden of disease and worse health conditions than the general population.
“Enhanced consideration should be given to resorting to non-custodial measures at all stages of the administration of criminal justice, including at the pre-trial, trial and sentencing as well as post-sentencing stages,” said the WHO.
The petition referred to data from the Department of Health which showed that COVID-19 patients above 66 years old have a higher death rate compared to the Philippine average of 5 percent, while 88 percent of those who died had 1 or 2 underlying conditions.
Nineteen of the inmates have underlying medical conditions ranging from diabetes and hypertension to bronchial asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among others.
Nineteen of them are also aged 55 years old and above.
One other inmate has leprosy while another one is pregnant.
“The continued incarceration and detention of highly vulnerable inmates such as the elderly, pregnant women, and those who have pre-existing medical conditions that pose a high risk of contracting the coronavirus is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment, which the 1987 Constitution explicitly prohibits,” the inmates argued, invoking also international treaties, laws and principles requiring proper sanitary conditions in jails.
RELEASE OF PRISONERS ABROAD
No less than UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had recently called on governments around the world to release prisoners “detained without sufficient legal basis” in order to decongest jails, in light of the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Among the countries that have responded to Bachelet’s call are Ethiopia, Sudan, Germany, Canada, the United States, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and Australia.
“Prison authorities, even from developed countries, cannot claim that they have devised a system or acquired appropriate equipment capable of stopping the spread of the coronavirus in prisons. It would be unbelievable if any prison official in any country, especially poor countries like the Philippines, to claim that their prison system is capable of handling the virus once it sets inside prison walls,” the petition said.
In the Philippines, a detainee at a Quezon City BJMP jail recently died due to suspected COVID-19 while a paralegal tested positive, the inmates claimed. They also said another inmate at the New Bilibid Prison died without getting tested for COVID-19.
“Alam naman natin kung gaano ka-congested, gaano kasikip no, 'yung mga kulungan na kung matulog sila, halos patong-patong na. Wala ka nang space. Kaya ang sinasabi ng WHO guidelines, na magpractice ng social or physical distancing or magkaroon ng quarantine. Impossible 'yan. Kaya ang naging worldwide trend ngayon sa marami at parami at paraming mga bansa ay magkaroon ng mga releases,” Fides Lim, wife of NDFP consultant Ladlad, said.
(We all know how congested, how crammed jails are, they sleep as if one is on top of the other. You have no space. That's why what the WHO says in guidelines to practice social or physical distancing or go into quarantine, that's impossible.)
Lim also serves as the spokesperson of Kapatid (Filipino word for brother/sister), an organization of families and friends of political prisoners in the Philippines which has lobbied for the release and protection of their rights and welfare.
Kapatid had previously called for the release of political prisoners and detainees who are sick and elderly.
Lim personally filed the petition with the Supreme Court, accompanied by lawyer Maria Kristina Conti of the Public Interest Law Center, which represents the inmates together with the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers.
In a statement, BJMP spokesperson Xavier Solda said the BJMP will support any legal measure to decongest jails but cited the need to study any proposition if it is not within the bounds of existing laws.
He said one of the issues that need to be settled is how to prove that those who will be released will not endanger the public or not commit any crime during the public emergency period.
“And should they be temporarily released, can the group who is calling for it assure the public that those people will return immediately once asked to return?” he asked.
Solda also asserted the inmates are safer inside their cells.
“We are deeply concerned about the PDL (persons deprived of liberty) under our care that is why we are doing our best to strictly implement all precautionary measures to protect our facility from the virus and we are thankful that up to this date, we have no record of PDL with COVID-19 inside our jails,” he said.
BuCor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag told ABS-CBN News the filing of the petition is the proper forum in seeking inmates’ release.
Conti, meanwhile, assured authorities the inmates have no plans of escaping.
“Siyempre yung mga mismong political prisoners, napakatanda, may mga sakit na, paano pa yan tatakas o makakawala? Kaya kung sila mismo nangangako sila, hindi kami tatakas sa obligasyon namin,” she said.
(Of course the political prisoners, they are old and sick, how would they even escape? That's why they promised they will not flee from their obligation.)
“Pangalawa, puwede i-ensure 'yan, 'yun nga 'yung bail o kaya recognizance, there is somebody else who will vouch for them.”
(Second, to ensure that, there's bail or recognizance, there is somebody else who will vouch for them.)
Conti also cited examples in other countries where movements of released prisoners are monitored.
By Kapatid’s count, there are currently 609 political prisoners in the Philippines, 97 of whom are ailing.
But the group said the petition covers not just political prisoners but other prisoners as well.
“... [T]his petition serves the broader purpose for the release of all other similarly-situated prisoners. Malinaw na nakasulat 'yan sa petition (It's clearly stated in the petition). Kaya ibig sabihin (that means) it is broad and all-encompassing because of the overall humanitarian considerations that the Supreme Court should listen to,” Lim said.