“The Philippines is facing a real catastrophe if nothing is done to improve the dire health and overcrowding situation in its jails.”
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL and RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Human Rights Watch claimed that the Philippine government has not fully reported prison deaths, and raised concerns that COVID-19 is spreading more quickly and widely in the country’s detention facilities.
The group said it interviewed five inmates who revealed that since March 25, 2020, at least seven inmates have died in the Quezon City Jail and one in the Cavite Provincial Jail. Human Rights Watch could not determine whether the deaths were COVID-19 related because of the absence of testing in the facilities and the government’s failure to report them.
Human Rights Watch urged authorities to investigate prison deaths and take urgent measures to better protect prisoners, including by reducing prison populations to allow for social distancing and other prevention measures.
“The Philippines is facing a real catastrophe if nothing is done to improve the dire health and overcrowding situation in its jails,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to release vulnerable prisoners immediately and ensure that the medical needs of the remaining detainees are met.”
Human rights group Karapatan, meanwhile, reiterated their call for the release prisoners as cases of (COVID-19) continue to increase.
“As the dangers inside prisons worsen day by day, we strongly assert our call for the release of prisoners, including and especially political prisoners, and for the government to rethink its policies in addressing the intensifying threats of the virus inside jails,” said Karapatan Deputy Secretary General Roneo Clamor in a statement.
As of April 28, data from the Bureau of Corrections show that three inmates died and 47 others tested positive. Meanwhile, Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, reported that there are at least 233 prisoners and jail personnel who are COVID-19 positive. Of those who tested positive, 185 are detained at the Cebu City Jail, one at the Mandaue City Jail, and nine at the Quezon City Jail.
“If the government is certain that the inmates are safer inside prison facilities, especially with the existence of its efforts to contain the spread of the virus, why do we have confirmed COVID-19 deaths and cases inside?” Clamor said.
Clamor reiterated their call for the immediate decongestion of jails by releasing the 22 political prisoners. “Those political prisoners are similarly-situated with other detainees who suffer from unrelenting fears that are intensified because of their health conditions and advanced age. The trumped-up and political nature of the charges against them should be likewise be considered,” he added.
Up to now, more than 40 days under the enhanced community quarantine, no prisoners have been released from prison despite the order of the Supreme Court for the government to hasten the process of selecting prisoners who should be released.
“All of the prisoners in the country are entitled to their rights, including their right to life. We demand that the government cease denying them of their rights by stalling their release on humanitarian grounds. This time calls for comprehensive and inclusive responses as it involves the welfare of thousands of individuals, including those detained,” Clamor ended.
The Philippines has the most congested penal system in the world, with a total jail population of more than 215,000 as of November 2019 occupying space intended for a maximum capacity of 40,000. The International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that the 467 jails nationwide were at 534 percent of capacity in March 2020. Bureau of Corrections records indicate that the congestion rate in its 125 prisons was 310 percent in January.