DOJ says not fair to be accused of lack of transparency
MANILA (UPDATE) — The Commission on Human Rights on Sunday called on government to be transparent in reporting the COVID-19 situation in prisons and detention facilities following reports of several persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) dying from the respiratory illness.
In a statement, the CHR said disclosure of information on the death of PDLs would help in crafting policies that would prevent further deaths in prisons and detention facilities.
"In light of reported deaths of PDLs while in prisons and detention facilities, CHR calls for transparency and openness from the government in reporting the situation of PDLs in the country," the CHR said.
The CHR said it has yet to receive a response from the Department of Justice (DOJ) after it asked the agency for a list of PDLs confined at Site Harry, the Bureau of Correction's isolation facility.
The commission also asked the DOJ for a list of PDLs in other quarantine or isolation areas, and PDLs who have died due to COVID-19.
"Cases of COVID-19 in different detention facilities continue to be a cause for concern and may be seen as an indication that protocols and initiatives must be improved to curb the spread of the virus among PDLs," the commission added.
The CHR stressed its Constitutional mandate to exercise visitorial powers over jails, prisons, or detention facilities.
"This is a mandate that should not be ignored, especially by BuCor, [Bureau of Jail Management and Penology], as well as DOJ and the Department of the Interior and Local Government, for the sake of thousands of PDLs whose lives are at stake with the continuing risks of rampant infection," it said.
The statement comes after several high-profile inmates, including Jaybee Sebastian, at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) were reported to have died due to COVID-19.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said "it is not fair" to say that his agency "has not been transparent about the conditions at the BuCor," noting that he ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to probe "strange things happening" there.
Guevarra explained the DOJ does not hold the information that the CHR wanted so they forwarded the request to the BuCor.
"The DOJ does not keep the official files of the BuCor, nor the personal records of PDLs," he said.
The DOJ has also sent last week by mail the documents requested by the CHR, which should arrive in a week, according to Justice Undersecretary Deo Marco.
"As soon as I received the docs from BuCor, I forward to CHR by mail," Marco said.
The BuCor earlier said 18 inmates from the NBP and Correctional Institution for Women died due to the respiratory illness, but refused to disclose their identities, citing the Data Privacy Act.
The National Privacy Commission, however, said the Data Privacy Act was not applicable on information regarding public figures like high-profile inmates — a remark which the CHR reiterated in its statement.
The CHR said that as of March 2020, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology has a 534% prison congestion rate, while the Bureau of Corrections, as of December 2019, reported a 302% congestion rate.