How COVID-19 cases exploded in prisons: A timeline

Aie Balagtas See, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Posted at Jun 24 2020 12:10 AM

How COVID-19 cases exploded in prisons: A timeline 1
Prisoners swamp Quezon City Jail 1. Photo by Bernard Testa

MANILA - When the outbreak of COVID-19 seemed inevitable in early March, human rights advocates appealed to authorities to decongest jails and prisons. The reason was obvious: these facilities were not equipped to respond to a pandemic and did not have enough doctors. 

Moreover, they were filled beyond capacity, making social distancing among detainees or inmates impossible. 

Protecting jails and prisons from the outbreak, human rights advocates argued, was a matter of life and death not only for the detainees but for the public as well. A lockdown to prevent COVID-19 from breaching prison walls was not sustainable, they pointed out, as staff could bring the virus from outside to their workplaces.

The warnings fell on deaf ears until infections began to sprout mid-April.

Here’s a timeline of events.


January 30 

–    The Department of Health (DOH) confirms the first COVID-19 case in the Philippines (PH COVID 1). She is a 38-year-old female tourist from Wuhan, China, the center of the pandemic.


February 1

-    DOH says the companion of PH COVID 1 died of coronavirus. He becomes the first COVID-19 death in the Philippines and the first known fatality outside China.

As the infection spreads in countries outside of China this month, the Philippine government does not make any significant move to prepare for the potential risk of the virus. 


March 8 

–    President Duterte declares a state of public health emergency to curb the rising number of COVID-19 infections.

March 10 

-    The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) activates “Oplan 2019 Novel Coronavirus,” which covers safety measures for 468 jails in the country.
March 11 
-    BJMP suspends visitation rights at jails in Metro Manila and the Ilocos and Davao regions. Visitation rights were also suspended in all Bulacan and Cavite jails; the Angeles District Jail in Pampanga; Cabanatuan City District Jail, Talavera Municipal Jail; San Jose City District Jail in Nueva Ecija; Cainta, Binangonan and Antipolo jails in Rizal; and Cabuyao, Calamba and San Pablo jails in Laguna.
March 12 

–    President Rodrigo Duterte announces that Metro Manila will be placed under “community quarantine” effective March 15.

March 14 

–    BJMP stops accepting detainees from police lockup cells.

March 15

-    Kapatid, an organization representing families of detainees, appeals for the release of low-level offenders, the elderly, the sick, and political prisoners. 

March 16 

–    Duterte places the entire Luzon under “enhanced community quarantine” (ECQ) until April 12. A state of calamity is declared. Some provinces and cities outside Luzon later impose their own quarantine measures.

March 19 

–    BJMP implements an absolute lockdown, barring visitation and the handing over of food and meals to inmates in all jails.

March 20 

-    Interior Secretary Eduardo Año rejects calls to release inmates, saying prison detention cells are “the safest place right now.” Año says Philippine jails and prisons remain COVID-free.
March 25 
–    An inmate in the Quezon City Jail male dormitory (QCJ Inmate-1) dies after complaining of “difficulty in breathing.” While his death certificate says it was due to heart complications, it mentions “possible COVID-19” as a contributing factor. 
March 30 
–    A female paralegal officer stationed at the Quezon City Jail male dorm is reported to have tested positive for coronavirus. The BJMP says she has been on work from home status since March 21.


April 1 

-    Detained opposition Senator Leila de Lima urges the government to release qualified inmates who “have a higher risk of contracting the highly contagious COVID-19 due to the overcrowding of jails and detention centers.”

April 6 

-    New York-based Human Rights Watch warns of catastrophic consequences if the jail population is neglected.

-    The House of Representatives Committee on Justice recommends the temporary release of prisoners to decongest jails.

April 7

-    The Luzon-wide ECQ is extended up to April 30.

April 8

-    Twenty-two detainees ask the Supreme Court for temporary freedom amid the rising coronavirus infection rate.

April 13

-    Two inmates of the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong are taken to hospitals. CIW Inmate-1 is admitted to Sta. Ana Hospital in Manila while CIW Inmate-2, found to have sepsis, systemic lupus and pneumonia, is taken to East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City. Both inmates are swabbed and tested for COVID-19. 

April 17 - COVID-19 explodes inside jails and prisons.

-    BJMP says nine inmates and nine jail guards are found positive for the virus.

-    An inmate of the New Bilibid Prison (Bilibid-1) in Muntinlupa is rushed to the nearby Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), a center for laboratory testing and treatment of COVID-19 patients.

April 18 

-    A prisoner from CIW (CIW Inmate-1) tests positive for COVID-19.

April 19

-    Cebu City Jail reports its first COVID-19 case. The inmate tests positive for coronavirus and dies on the same day.

-    Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella orders mass testing in Cebu City Jail.

April 20

-    The Supreme Court tells judges to implement jail decongestion measures.

-    A male inmate of Zamboanga City Jail dies of COVID-19.

April 21

-    CIW reports more cases: 18 inmates and one medical staff test positive for the disease, bringing the total number of infections to 21.

-    Amnesty International joins growing calls to decongest jails and prisons, saying the release of vulnerable inmates is a matter of life and death.

-    CIW Inmate-2 dies at East Avenue Medical Center without knowing the results of her virus test.

April 22

-    The Board of Pardons and Parole relaxes rules on granting parole and clemency to convicts.

-    Cebu City Jail logs 123 new coronavirus cases.

April 23

-    Bilibid-1 dies of COVID-19 at RITM. He was the first reported case of coronavirus in NBP.

-    Two more inmates from CIW test positive for COVID-19, bringing the number of infected inmates and staff in the facility to 22.

April 24

-    Twenty-seven more inmates from CIW test positive for COVID-19.

-    Mandaue City Jail reports its first COVID-19 case.

-    Seventeen new coronavirus cases are recorded in Cebu City Jail.

April 25

-    Solicitor General Jose Calida blocks a petition to release high-risk inmates from jails, saying congestion is not a problem.

-    Sixty-three more inmates at Cebu City Jail test positive for coronavirus.

April 26

-    Cebu City Jail logs 40 new COVID-19 cases.

-    A jail officer from BJMP’s Western Visayas Regional Office tests positive for COVID-19.
April 27
-    BJMP says a total of 34 jail staff and 195 inmates from Metro Manila and Metro Cebu are found positive for coronavirus. This record does not include results from Zamboanga City Jail.

-    CIW Inmate-1 dies in Sta. Ana hospital.

-    The test result for CIW Inmate-2 is released six days after her death. She was positive for COVID-19.

April 29

-    Cebu Provincial Jail, home of the Cebu Dancing Inmates of YouTube fame, reports 17 cases of COVID-19 and records its first COVID-related death.

April 30

-    A female officer in Lapu-Lapu City Jail tests positive for COVID-19.

-    A female inmate from Zamboanga City Jail dies of COVID-19, bringing the number of coronavirus deaths in the facility to two.


May 1

-    The ECQ is extended up to May 15 only in Metro Manila, Calabarzon, Central Luzon except for Aurora, “high-risk” provinces Benguet, Pangasinan, Iloilo and Cebu, and Bacolod and Davao cities. The rest of the country is placed under the less stringent general community quarantine (GCQ).

-    The number of COVID-19 patients in Cebu City Jail reaches 332 after the facility logs 125 new cases.

May 2

-    Two jail staff and 27 inmates of Zamboanga City Jail test positive for COVID-19.

May 3 

–    Sixty more inmates at Mandaue City Jail test positive for COVID-19.

May 11

-    Zamboanga City Jail becomes the epicenter of COVID-19 in the city after nine jail staff and 56 inmates test positive for coronavirus.

May 13 

–    The number of COVID-19 infections in Zamboanga City Jail jumps to 86.

May 15

-    The Department of Justice says the number of COVID-positive inmates under the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) stands at 117. New Bilibid Prisons has 40 cases while the CIW has 77.

-    Eight CIW inmates recover from the virus.

May 16

–    Metro Manila and seven other areas shift to “modified ECQ,” while Cebu and Mandaue cities remain under the stricter ECQ until May 31. All other areas remain under GCQ. 

May 19

-    BJMP says its COVID-19 cases all over the country stand at 517. Cebu City Jail is worst hit by the deadly virus.

May 20

-    Mandaue City records 66 new COVID-19 cases. The patients are all from Mandaue City Jail.

May 25

-    The DOJ says the number of BuCor prisoners with coronavirus has jumped to 161. Of the total, 82 are from NBP while 79 are from the CIW. At least 33 BuCor personnel also test positive for COVID-19.

-    BuCor’s coronavirus death toll stands at six, with three deaths each in NBP and CIW.

May 29

-    The municipality of Itogon in Benguet Province reports its first COVID-19 case: A 40-year-old prison officer assigned in NBP who went home to the mining town.


June 1

-    Metro Manila shifts to the less stringent GCQ. Also under GCQ are Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon regions, Albay and Pangasinan provinces, and Davao City. The rest of the country are placed under the more relaxed “modified GCQ” ahead of a transition to the so-called “new normal.” 

June 2

-    BuCor prisoners with coronavirus reach 222: the NBP has 140 while CIW has 89. The DOJ says 48 NBP and CIW personnel are also COVID-19 positive.

-    BuCor deaths reach 10.

June 11

-    Deaths at BuCor reach 15, the bureau’s spokesperson tells PCIJ.

Here's also an infographic by Alexandra Paredes on this timeline.

How COVID-19 cases exploded in prisons: A timeline 2

Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at for comments.

Alexandra Paredes is a graphic designer and artist. Her design practice spans social impact, corporate collaterals, teaching, writing, and commissioned art. Find her online at