OSG: Congestion in prisons not a ground to release inmates

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 24) – Congestion in prison facilities is not among the grounds to release inmates, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) said in its 47-page comment on a petition seeking temporary liberty for low-risk and vulnerable prisoners and detainees amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The issue of the inadequacy of the Philippine Prison System to meet the very high standard of international rules does not warrant the release of prisoners,” the OSG said.

Various groups called for the release of at-risk inmates considering the overcrowded detention facilities in the country.

The government’s top lawyer, however, argued prisoners are more likely to get medical assistance inside the prison than they are outside.

Citing Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) data, the OSG said the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) housing 29,173 prisoners as of February 2020 has a hospital with a 500-bed capacity.

“This means that the ratio of hospital bed to population in the facility is 1:60, far more than the hospital beds available to the public outside the prison with the ratio of 1:1000.”

The OSG said the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) is prepared in the event that prisoners get infected with serious illness, adding “the remedy is to take the infected prisoner to the nearest hospital.

The OSG added the BJMP and BuCor are equipped with medical emergency personnel to respond to medical crisis.

“For the COVID-19 pandemic, the detention facilities have a response protocol in place, such as quarantine and treatment facilities to mitigate the risk of infection.”

The BuCor recorded its first death due to the virus.

A male COVID-19 inmate at the NBP was admitted at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine on April 17 and died on April 23.

Different jail and correctional facilities have also reported cases of the contagious disease.

Exploiting COVID-19 crisis

The OSG asked the Supreme Court (SC) to dismiss the petition of 22 political prisoners for lack of merit.

The CPP-NPA-NDF, it said, is bent on exploiting the COVID-19 crisis “while the rest of the world finds a solution to defeat the virus.”

“For more than 51 years, it has always been the scheme of the CPP-NPA-NDF to exploit every opportunity in the guise of ‘human considerations’ to facilitate the release of its detained members, as it has done so every time the peace negotiations resumes,” the OSG explained.

The petitioners are all political prisoners and detainees who are elderly, sick or pregnant. They argued they are currently committed in places of detention “where it is practically impossible to practice self-isolation, social distancing, and other COVID-19 precautions.”

“Under the circumstances, their age and health conditions render them vulnerable to contract the dreaded COVID-19,” the petition read.

But the OSG said being old and sickly do not always mean that they are more vulnerable.

“There are cases of old and sickly COVID-19 positive patients who have fully recovered, while some of the young healthy patients have lost their battle to the virus. The COVID-19 virus knows no age and health conditions and can infect anyone at any time and any place.”

Petitioners can’t be released on recognizance, not entitled to bail

The government’s top lawyer also explained the benefit of being released on recognizance is granted only to those who: are not charged of an offense punishable by reclusion perpetua or death; have not been convicted by the regional trial court; are not entitled to the benefits of probation law; and have not started serving sentence.

Recognizance is a mode of securing the release of arrested or detained persons who are unable post bail due to poverty.

The OSG noted that all the petitioners were charged with offenses punishable by reclusion perpetua or death.

“One of the petitioners, Lilia Bucatcat, was already convicted and serving her sentence,” the OSG added.

The OSG also pointed out those charged with offenses punishable by reclusion perpetua when evidence of guilt is strong, are not entitled to bail before conviction.

It said, “the determination of whether the evidence of guilt is strong, however, shall be made before the trial court where the information was filed.”

“Apart from railroading what should have been the proper procedure, the petitioners likewise failed to state the crimes that they committed and the nature and gravity of these crimes.”

Enrile case inapplicable

Petitioners cited the SC case of former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile to post bail on humanitarian grounds, claiming they are also not flight risks due to their advanced age and physical conditions.

The OSG said the petitioners have shown they are more likely to escape once released.

It pointed out that petitioners Alexander Ramonita Birondo, Winona Marie Birondo, Adelberto Silva and Renante Gamara served as NDF consultants. But after the termination of peace talks on November 23, 2017, they failed to surrender to the authorities in violation of the terms of their temporary liberty.

The same is true, the OSG said, with petitioners Vicente Ladlad and Rey Casambre, NDF consultants who were arrested for illegal possession of explosives and firearms, and are being linked to multiple murders.

“The petition is nothing more than a ruse to redouble the efforts of the petitioners’ dangerous organization. The goal of the petition is really to bring back into the fold some of their most cunning leaders and officers.”