Groups call for proper inmate treatment in pandemic

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 1) - A number of groups called for the proper treatment of inmates or persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) amid the pandemic.

Kapatid spokesperson Fides Lim, a support group for political prisoners’ relatives and friends, questioned prison authorities’ silence on the real health condition of those inside the jails and detention facilities.

She said families have not been allowed to visit the inmates and detainees since March 11 due to the continuing prison lockdown.

“Not a day passes that we don’t worry for them," Lim said in a forum organized by Cure Covid. "Are they able to eat properly, because many jails do not allow relatives to send food? What will happen if they get sick with fever, like what happened to my own jailed husband Vic Ladlad when COVID-19 started spreading in March?”

“How can we help when there are so many restrictions to helping them, yet we don’t know what’s really going on because prison authorities are silent on the prisoners’ conditions in the midst of unreported deaths,” she added.

Meanwhile, Dr. Reggie Paras of the Health Action for Human Rights said the pandemic again underscored the dire need to reduce the overcrowding in Philippine jails.

Paras noted the cramped space in prison cells, poor sanitation facility and limited access to balanced diet which make the PDLs more vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.

“Sabi nga ng BJMP [Bureau of Jail Management and Penology], meron silang 467 facilities nationwide with about 534% congestion rate,” Paras said.

[Translation: According to BJMP, they have 467 facilities nationwide with 534% congestion rate.]

“Nakakaalarma ang mga prison o jail facilities na pwedeng maging incubator, maging hotbed ng COVID-19 infections…Hirap sila sa physical distancing…kasi dikit dikit sila," Paras pointed out.

‘Pag natutulog sila minsan halos magkakalapit na ang mga mukha o paa,” added Paras. “Paano ang handwashing kung kulang sa tubig? Kaunti lang ang budget sa pagkain nila…pag nagugutom ka hihina ang immune system.”

[Translation: It's alarming that our prisons or jail facilities can serve as incubators and hotbed of COVID-19 infections...It's hard to practice physical distancing because of their close proximity. When they sleep, sometimes their faces and feet are close with each other. How can they practice handwashing if they don’t have enough water supply? They only have a small budget for food...if they are hungry, their immune system will be compromised.]

To protect the physical and mental health of PDLs, Kapatid has urged authorities to improve the medical system in jails such as providing access to maintenance medicine and COVID-19 testing.

Lim said there should be a facility for electronic or virtual visitation of relatives and friends. She also said PDLs should have immediate access to doctors through online medical consultations.

“No one deserves to die from a virus without a fighting chance to live,” she added.

To reduce overcrowding, Lim suggested quarantine offenders should be asked to do community service instead of being detained.

In addition, the group also called for the release of eligible prisoners for humanitarian consideration. They are the pregnant and nursing mothers, low level offenders eligible for parole, pardon and commutation of sentence; incidental victims of political arrests, as well as aging and ailing PDLs.

Lim and human rights lawyer Antonio La Vina said there should also be regular bulletins on the current number of cases in prisons and detention facilities.

“Malinaw naman siguro sa polisiya recognizing na pag nasa bilanguan ngayon, in danger ka dahil sa dami nyo," La Vina said. "Di lang kayo in danger… but ang pulis… ang families both ng pulis at prison officials.”

[Translation: I think it’s very clear with the policy recognizing that you are in danger if you are inside the prison, because it is crowded there. The policemen as well as their families, and other prison officials are also in danger.]

“Sa tingin natin maraming infections ang di pa alam and we don’t have transparency,” he added.

[Translation: We could agree that there could be more cases of infections that we don’t know yet and we do not have transparency.]

According to the Department of Health, there are clustering of COVID-19 cases in 34 prisons or jails nationwide as of Sept. 20. There are 21 inmates, mostly with pre-existing medical conditions, who succumbed to COVID-19 as of July.

READ: Guevarra says nothing suspicious with nearly 500 deaths within PH jails

The Bureau of Corrections says it has been reporting the coronavirus situation inside the national penitentiary to the Department of Health.

Call to release eligible PDLs

Twenty-two prisoners who have underlying medical conditions filed a petition for temporary release in April. The petitioners, composed of sick, elderly, and pregnant inmates, told the Supreme Court they are at high risk of contracting the coronavirus disease behind bars.

But in September, the Supreme Court referred petitions before the lower courts where the inmates’ respective criminal cases are pending.

Atty. Ephraim Cortez of the National Union of People’s Lawyer said it will take time for the lower court to decide on the petition.

“Before the lower court to resolve the issue of granting bail, it has to allow the prosecution to prove there is evidence strong enough to hold their trail and prevent them from posting bail..." Cortez said. "Tumatagal yan ng isa, dalawang taon (it lasts one up to two years).”

He added: “We urge the SC to exercise its powers to allow petitioners to post bail. The longer they stay in jail, lalo silang nagiging vulnerable magkasakit (They become more vulnerable to sickness).”

Cortez and La Vina stressed that the state is still responsible for the inmates’ welfare and well-being.

The Board of Pardons and Parole has granted parole for 165 inmates between May 18 and June 3 to decongest jails. It has also released 93 inmates last September.

BuCor assures good health of PDLs

Meanwhile, Bureau of Corrections spokesperson Gabby Chaclag said the “health and well-being of PDLs are our paramount concern, that is why we haven't stopped reformation programs and psychological/ medical interventions despite the challenges of this period.”

He told CNN Philippines the bureau has partnered with other agencies and non-government organizations to check the welfare of inmates, including regular COVID-19 testing.

“The low rate of infection shown by the results of our regular swab testing and the high rate of recoveries of COVID patients indicate that the interventions implemented by BuCor and its reliable partners like the ICRC, DOH, PRC, UN agencies, religious and other volunteers, other private donors are effective and working," Chaclag said.