The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) on Wednesday vowed to implement improved protocols for handling deaths inside the country’s prisons.
In a pre-State of the Nation Address (SONA) press briefing, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra acknowledged that the existing protocols are “somehow inadequate.”
“You know when the BuCor people presented to us their protocols we noted that these are somehow inadequate. So this will be the subject of further discussion, how to improve their protocols in case of death among prisoners,” Guevarra told reporters.
Guevarra earlier ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of nine high-profile inmates, including drug convict Jaybee Sebastian, allegedly due to COVID-19.
Sebastian, who was one of the witness in one of the illegal drug trade cases filed against opposition senator Leila de Lima, died on July 17 and was immediately cremated.
BuCor initially refused to confirm the death of Sebastian and the eight other high-profile inmates, prompting speculation that they were actually freed or summarily executed.
“So many stories have been swirling around that seems to dispute that the cause of death of these convicted drug offenders was COVID-19. In fact there are theories that they did not die and so forth and so on and that the bodies have already been replaced by someone else andthey were let go. Because of these various theories and also for the benefit of the BuCor to dispel any doubt that there was an anomaly over these deaths allegedly due COVID-19, the we thought it proper and prudent to request the NBI to make its own inquiry into the matter,” Guevarra said.
Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the committee on justice and human rights and the Blue Ribbon committee on Wednesday said the deaths of high-profile convicted drug lords detained at the New Bilibid Prison could have been faked.
“We cannot cheat the hangman. The Bureau of Prisons has not earned public trust. And they cannot, on their own, they just cannot say that this [person] died, and then, you take our word for it. We cannot take their word that an inmate dies of COVID-19, we cannot treat that as Gospel truth,” Gordon said.
Gordon said there is a need to investigate the alleged deaths and to require further proof of their deaths.
He also said he finds allegations that bodies were switched to enable the drug lords to go free “plausible.”
Senator Risa Hontiveros said it is baffling how COVID-19 was able to wipe out several drug lords in one blow. She filed a resolution to investigate the deaths of the nine high-profile drug inmates.
Earlier, Bucor confirmed that Sebastian, along with eight other high-profile inmates namely Benjamin Marcelo, Zhang Zhu Li, Jimmy Kinsing Hung, Francis Go, Jimmy Yang, Eugene Chua, Ryan Ong, and Amin Imam Buratong, succumbed to COVID-19. Their remains were immediately cremated at Panteon de Dasmarinas Public Cemetery in Cavite, he said.
Guevarra, on the other hand, sought to allay fears that more inmates would die, after BuCor recorded a total of 476 inmates who died from various causes, including COVID-19.
The figure covers seven penal institutions under BuCor – the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong City, Davao Prison and Penal Farm in Davao del Norte,
Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Palawan, San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm in Zamboanga City, Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm in Occidental Mindoro, and the Leyte Regional Prison in Southern Leyte.
Of the 476 deaths, BuCor Director General Gerald Bantag said 21 were due to COVID-19.
He also said two or three inmates die every day for various reasons.
Also on Wednesday, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) said 21,858 inmates have been released to decongest jails during the COVID-19 pandemic.
DILG Secretary Eduardo Año said the inmates were released from March 17 to July 13 from 470 jails managed by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) across the country.
Of the total number, 5,102 were paralegal releases through bail, plea-bargaining, parole or probation. On the other hand, 6,756 were non-paralegal releases through acquittal or served sentence.
Of the inmates released, 409 were elderly, 621 were sick, and 24 were pregnant, Año said.