“Those making noises about restoring the death penalty conveniently forget that our penal system already consigns inmates to a slow death through severe overcrowding, disease, and corruption.”
We’ve long wondered why the government at both the national and local levels have ignored calls for them to build prison facilities that would meet international human rights standards.
Is it because of budget constraints? Or maybe because our authorities believe that those who have committed serious crimes deserve to be punished—and punished enough—and kept for a long, long time in cramped cells and therefore prevented from committing more murder and mayhem?
During the Duterte regime’s six-year brutal war on drugs, the thousands who escaped instantaneous death through Operation Tokhang and Oplan Double Barrel were kept in detention facilities where they practically lived in subhuman conditions, including sleeping side by side like canned sardines in really tight spaces.
The number of detainees got so big that they had to await their turn to sleep on the cement floor, an image captured by photojournalists and published even in newspapers abroad to show how dire the situation in Philippine prisons had become.
The government keeps two kinds of prisons: detention facilities for those accused of crimes but still undergoing court proceedings, which are operated by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, and regular prisons, ran by the Bureau of Corrections, for those already convicted and sentenced to stay behind bars for certain periods.
But the new administration appears determined to address the perennial overcrowding in our penal system that’s been there for as long as we can remember.
The latest development here is that the Department of Justice has firmed up plans to move inmates from the maximum security compound of New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City to the Sablayan penal colony in Occidental Mindoro.
The agency is holding talks with the Department of Public Works and Highways to build a maximum security facility in Sablayan, a first-class municipality in Occidental Mindoro that hosts a 16,190-hectare prison and penal farm established there in 1954.
Prison relocation is something that’s long overdue, as Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla has observed, considering the national penitentiary’s record of 400 escapes over the past 20 years and the proliferation of illegal drugs within its walls.
The DOJ is also looking at converting the Mega Drug Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija into a minimum security prison.
That’s another long overdue project, as the facility has been a white elephant with few undergoing drug rehab since it was built from a donation by a Chinese tycoon years back.
At present, the maximum security compound in the New Bilibid Prison houses 17,400 inmates even though it was only built for 6,000 people. That translates to a congestion rate equivalent to 300 percent of its recommended capacity.
Built in 1940, NBP is the largest prison managed by BuCor with a population of 28,900 persons deprived of liberty, or PDLs, of whom nearly two-thirds are in the maximum security compound.
Within the compound, the infamous Building 14 houses some of the most high-profile prisoners, many of them convicted drug dealers.
As the most tightly guarded facility, the building is protected by its own set of security guards and equipped with surveillance cameras and signal jamming devices.
The penitentiary was constructed on an initial 551 ha of land, but a 104-ha portion was diverted to a DOJ housing project.
The proposed P4.8-billion budget for the construction of the maximum security prison in Sablayan town would be included in the DPWH’s budget for its public buildings program.
But the funding for the project would still depend on the design, as a special consultant might be needed to ensure the facility complied with international standards for prisons.
Besides NBP and the Sablayan penal colony, BuCor manages five other facilities: Correctional Institution for Women 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, and Leyte Regional Prison in Southern Leyte.
The DOJ’s plan to build more prison facilities to decongest existing ones has the support of Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III.
The lawmaker suggested the construction of a “world-class” maximum security prison in the country. He said the country should have only one modernized maximum security prison because regionalizing it would be “impractical.”
For Pimentel, a world-class maximum security prison should have state-of-the art security features.
In the Senate hearing in October 2019 on irregularities in the Bureau of Corrections, it was revealed that about 20 percent of inmates at the New Bilibid Prison die every year because of overcrowding that prevents officials from stopping the spread of diseases, such as pulmonary tuberculosis.
If the prison population then stood at 26,000, that means 5,200 die annually.
During the same hearing, lawmakers learned that in the Quezon City Jail men’s dormitory, as many as three to five inmates die every month of treatable conditions due to lack of ventilation from overcrowding, and lack of access to medical care.
Penal reform, starting with the construction of modern prison facilities and perhaps greater emphasis on rehabilitation, may be just what is needed to stop overcrowding and the high death rate from untreated diseases even if we have already abolished the death penalty for heinous crimes.
Those making noises about restoring the death penalty conveniently forget that our penal system already consigns inmates to a slow death through severe overcrowding, disease, and corruption.