Prisoners: The abandoned guests of the state

Words by Giancarlo Morrondoz

Our society consists of several vulnerable groups: women, youth, farmers, workers, and the poor to name some. They are considered at risk due to exploitation and discrimination committed by the elite. Among these groups, there is one that is less discussed, the prisoners,  or who are called as the “guests” of the state.

Prisoners are not solitary cases as these individuals also have backgrounds that intersect with other vulnerable groups. At only 11 years old, Jerry was sent to a youth detention center for breaking curfew because he was trying to escape from his abusive parents. He endured incidents of sexual abuse while inside the detention center. (Read: ‘Worse than prison’: Abuses in Philippine youth homes

Nearly 10% percent of all prisoners are women and children. Some have been imprisoned at the age of sixteen, some have grown past sixty in prison. Many live below the poverty line, and countless families experience the difficulty of having a convicted family member. In extreme cases, prisoners also find themselves abused and mistreated by the same people who are supposed to guide them to rehabilitation.

The moment detainees enter prison, many of their basic human rights are either lost or suspended; one of which is that they lose their right to mobility because our jails hold way beyond its capacity. Inside the Manila City Jail, 500 prisoners are packed in an area meant only for 170 individuals. Prisoners have to take turns in resting in this cramped area, let alone sit down. 

The government’s lack of support prevents prisoners from accessing needed medical services and proper nutrition. They are allotted a maximum of P35 for three meals a day. However it is projected to be lower due to overcrowding and the so-called “bureaucratic red tape.” Detainees depend on donations that often overflow during the holidays and not much more after. Prisons in the Philippines rarely follow the global standards set by the United Nations (UN); current protocols don’t even obey the standards mandated by our national government. 

Prisons during the pandemic

According to a report by the World Prison Brief (WPB) in November 2019, there are 215,000 inmates nationwide. The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), in its 2020 budget, allocated roughly P19,000 for each inmate. With the ongoing pandemic, it is expected that the government should further assist inmates and jail aides but the proposed budget for BuCor was capped at 3.7 billion for the year 2021 from its previous budget of 4.24 billion in 2020. This means that for 2021, the budget for every prisoner is at  P17,200 maximum. In comparison, the cost of living for one individual in Quezon City, assuming they do not pay rent, is P24,000, monthly. 

Bahala silang mamatay. Pabayaan mo lang sila.” were the words of a prison guard to a medical aide after the latter informed him of a sick detainee. This was from an account by an elderly man from the Quezon City Jail. Even before the pandemic, prisons already had a large death rate, nearly three dead persons per day. Many prisoners were elderly with histories of tuberculosis endemic in most prisons in the country. These cramped spaces are a hotbed for COVID-19 transmission and the health protocols imposed outside, in compliance with RA No. 11332, are nowhere to be found inside. No mass testing was implemented even after nine deaths were attributed to COVID-19. 

Many prisoners have a history of lung and heart complications but they are kept in very enclosed spaces with inadequate resources. No medical aid, no mass testing. Lowering the budget of the BuCor is a death sentence not only for prisoners, but also for employees who are exposed to the virus and are in dire need of financial and medical assistance.

The bodies of deceased inmates were given no dignity. Some were even cremated before given the chance to be claimed by their family members. Inmates were even said to be “piled up” at the New Bilibid Prison, wherein 20 or more bodies were stacked and treated as mere disposables. 

If even before the pandemic, prisons across the country, especially those located in the National Capital Region (NCR), already have increasing death rates due to overcrowding and lack of basic necessities for its inmates, how about now that we have a pandemic that could kill even those who are equipped and healthy?

“Guilty until proven innocent”

Of the 215,000 inmates mentioned earlier, an overwhelming percentage of 75.1% of the whole prison population are considered as pre-trial detainees. These are prisoners who are remanded or detained during criminal investigations and are set for eventual trial. In 2013, Frank* was arrested for the murder of a policeman, a charge he fervently denied. While he was being interrogated at the police station, he was severely beaten and tortured by ten cops who kept accusing him of the said murder. Ironically, the charges filed by the police was not of homicide or murder but that of illegal trafficking of drugs and firearms, charges that typically have instances of planted evidence. (Read: Culprits dressed in blue: a disservice, dishonor, and injustice

Remand prisoners could be kept in a cell for months or even years and some are coerced to admit to their charges even without substantial evidence. Torture and violence on pre-trial detainees are also common, stripping them of their right to a fair trial. (Read: Torture by ‘cop’ caught on cam

Many detainees usually cannot afford to hire lawyers, and in many cases, there is not even a nearby and available judge for their trials. These people are defenseless and left with barely any alternatives. Pre-trial detainees wait an average of nine months before they are granted a trial. Prison cells are made to house convicts and are supposed to be temporary residences for pre-trial detainees, but many of these detainees stay for months, if not, years, due to intensified bureaucracy in our justice system. 

Hermogenes de Guzman was arrested for murder on November 20, 2002 in Occidental Mindoro. He was in pre-trial detainment until his trial in 2008, where he was charged guilty, despite an unreliable eyewitness from the prosecution and a solid alibi. Further review of his case revealed the flaws of the prosecution, and he was later released in 2012. 

Hermogenes is but one of the many pre-trial detainees who were forced to stay in prison for years only to be found innocent. He suffered ten years inside before he was acquitted from the transgression. At the time of the crime, he was said to be just drying palay.

As the sole breadwinner, the adverse consequences of his detainment for ten years did not only affect him but his family as well. Locked up for that period of time, while being unable to provide for your family, is traumatizing.

Another similar case is that of Mario Calingayan’s arrest. Calingayan was 16 when he was arrested for the murder of Renato Suba. It was just a bad case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but all of the events that lead to his arrest, were due to the inefficiencies of our justice system.

Calingayan’s father, a jail guard at the Solano Municipal Jail, originally had him detained for three days, to teach him a lesson for pawning some of his items. At the time of Suba’s death, Calingayan reported the body to Edgar Crisostomo, the guard on duty at that time. Crisostomo was arrested as the primary suspect with Calingayan treated as an accomplice. They both pleaded not guilty.

Mario Calingayan was a pre-trial detainee for four years. Sandiganbayan reversed the verdict of their criminal case and released them in 2005. By then, Calingayan had already spent half of his life in prison, leaving at 32 years old. 

The repercussions of his detainment are irreversible. He will have to reintegrate into a society that he hasn’t been part of for most of his life. His world was limited to the four walls of a prison cell. Rarely did he enjoy his childhood, much less interact with people his age. He was never given proper education and the state robbed him of his future and his right to live a full life as a member of society.

Imagine spending half your life correcting a mistake you never even committed. Many prisoners experience it up to now, waiting years just to have their day in court. 

There were also instances wherein pre-trial detainment encouraged criminality as many of these kinds of detainees are first exposed to crime inside detention facilities. 

In most countries, pre-trial detainees only constitute a minority of the prison population. It is considered as a last resort reserved only for exceptional cases, like those who are likely to escape or to commit more crimes if not hastily detained. The Philippines, along with many other developing countries such as Brazil, Thailand, and India, have a high percentage of pre-trial detainees between inmates. 

The UN set countermeasures that should be implemented to lessen pre-trial detainment. Measures including, but not limited to, prompt information about the arrest, trial without delay, separation of pre-trial detainees and juveniles from convicted prisoners. These are all measures that the Philippines and many other developing countries have not yet applied or are ineffective at doing so.

Laws like the Speedy Trial Act were enacted in 1998 to reduce pre-trial detainees and the prison population, yet its percentage only continues to rise. 

Delay of justice is injustice

The slow processing of trials and the large percentage of prisoners primarily composed of pre-trial detainees are all symptoms of a flawed justice system, one that does not ensure genuine justice and equality. It does not ensure the fairness of law for women, many of whom are already facing an uphill battle at court due to a history of discriminatory laws found in our Labor Code and Revised Penal Code. Sexual abuse in jails is also widespread, despite the introduction of laws which safeguard prisoners inside detention centers, such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act. (Read: Sexual Abuse in Philippine Detention Emerging as a Human Rights Crisis

In 2018, the Supreme Court (SC) reported that courts in the Philippines resolved more cases than what they initially aimed for. The SC disposed of nearly 50% more cases above its target. Although courts were comparatively more productive, why are there still over 160,000 detainees who are not yet granted their trial?

This is due to a huge backlog of cases, some of which are already a decade old; the problem lies in the inconsistency of the judicial courts from term to term. In 2016, during the first year of Duterte’s presidency, there was a sharp increase in backlog cases, likely due to upheavals in courts and the administration’s newly-executed war on drugs. The inefficiency of our courts is only augmented by poor administrative policies and its innate bureaucracy, but the broken and disorganized system already existed years ago.

The police are usually under pressure to produce results. This is due to incentives set by the Duterte administration for the arrests, murder and execution of criminals, regardless of conviction. The investigative process is also jeopardized leading to errors and the arrest of individuals, many of which are people who are below the poverty line and uninformed in the judicial process. Some are arrested using extorted confessions with the promise of financial assistance and a swift release. (Read: Philippines: The police’s murderous war on the poor

After these prisoners serve their time, rehabilitated, and once again a free citizen, discrimination against them does not stop there. Their history as an “ex-convict” hangs on to them even after their release. There were cases of ex-convicts receiving less pay despite working decently. Back in 2019, prisoners who were released early on good behavior were intimidated to turn themselves back in due to an ultimatum issued by Duterte, with those who do not cooperate to be arrested. Despite prisoners’ efforts, reform is actively discouraged and considered to be impossible. 

Duterte’s infamous willingness to breach existing laws also undermines an already impotent justice system. His war on drugs alone has produced tens of thousands of victims, many of which are undocumented.

Justice only for the privileged

The poverty-stricken residents of Sitio San Roque requesting for financial aid, amidst the pandemic, were violently arrested and fined for allegedly breaching quarantine protocols. Meanwhile, police officers who held a mass gathering for a birthday party are slapped on the wrist. Senator Koko Pimentel endangered many patients in the Makati Medical Center, by breaking the same laws, but he was able to walk away without any repercussions. Noli*, an old fishmonger, was violently arrested, fined, humiliated, and detained for four days for not wearing a face mask while he was trying to earn a living to feed his family. His wife was forced to borrow P2,000 from a “5-6 lender” in order to pay the police in exchange for Noli’s freedom. (Read: Policing a pandemic: Philippines still stuck with drug war blueprint)

Even after conviction, biases and special treatments for affluent and powerful prisoners still pervade. Zaldy Ampatuan was convicted for 57 counts of murder for the Maguindanao Massacre, but was allowed a furlough back in 2018 to attend his daughter’s wedding. Ina Nasino was only given three hours to attend her six month-old baby’s funeral. 43 armed guards even guarded her throughout her furlough. The difference between the two cases is that the latter is seen as a political prisoner, or individuals who are imprisoned due to their opposing political beliefs. Political prisoners are continuously denied these rights, even in life or death situations.

Marcos Aggalao, 74-year-old peace pact holder of the Salegseg tribe was refused to be released, despite suffering dementia and pneumonia. He died on September 17, 2017 and suffered three strokes while incarcerated. Meanwhile, Atty. Gigi Reyes, detained for being linked to the pork barrel scam and other plunder charges, was temporarily released by courts to have a dental appointment back in 2015. (Read: LIST: In furlough requests, political personalities have edge over political prisoners)

Former Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez has a sizeable room with amenities and could even continue his criminal operations despite the heinous crimes of rape and murder he committed to two students from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) back in the 1990s. He was slated to be released this 2020 because former BuCor chief Nicanor Faeldon asserted that Sanchez was covered by the guidelines set under RA No. 10592 or the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law. Even during the pandemic, he receives preferential treatment through swab testing, while jail aides and the less fortunate prisoners succumb to the lethal disease.

Our judiciary system is said to be focused on retribution rather than reform. However, while this is true for the impoverished, time in prison for the wealthy is treated as a chance for redemption and rehabilitation. For the marginalized, it serves as retribution for being cemented in poverty, defenseless. With the ongoing clamor for the reinstatement of the death penalty as a retributive measure, the need for reform in our judicial and penal system is apparent. Because when our laws are built perfectly in favor of the privileged, the masses are left to suffer. 

It is well within our rights to demand accountability from the government as well as an efficient and fair judicial process because the deteriorating rights of prisoners is a reflection of a corrupt and faulty system. Especially with the enacted Anti-Terrorism Law, along with its vague provisions, anyone is at risk of imprisonment. 

Under our current state of affairs, activism and opposition is considered a crime, the disfavored are either oppressed or silenced using our very own constitution. 

The law should be able to defend the disadvantaged, help the helpless, and safeguard the vulnerable. Because without justice, genuine democratic freedom and peace cannot be obtained. [P]

Photo from Armed Forces of the Philippines

1 comment on “Prisoners: The abandoned guests of the state

  1. Pingback: Political prisoner Antonio Molina in critical medical condition; progressives call for immediate release – UPLB Perspective

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