Philippine jails already a death trap
Human rights advocates
believe that numbers will still increase and the full force of
Covid-19 is yet to be felt. They also call for transparency in
releasing death and infection rates to help craft policies and
mitigate the spread of false information.
AIE BALAGTAS SEE, Philippine Center for Investigative
May 5, 2020
AN AVERAGE of 50 to 60 prisoners have died in the New Bilibid Prison
(NBP) every month for the past six months but only one death in
April has been attributed to Covid-19.
For the Bureau of Corrections (Bucor) the death toll in February,
March, and April was still within the range of monthly deaths in the
last quarter of 2019 to early 2020. The pandemic has ravaged the
country since March, with local transmission of the coronavirus
taking place as early as February. Humanitarian groups have since
warned of its catastrophic effect on the country’s prison system.
“It still falls under our average death rate for the past six
months,” Bucor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag said in a phone
The high death rate, Chaclag said, was proportional to Bilibid’s
huge population, currently at 28,000. The population could create
from 11 to 14 barangays. Chaclag claimed that if they have lower
population, then they will have fewer deaths.
Bilibid is one of Bucor’s seven facilities for convicts. It had
recorded one to three deaths daily from October 2019 to April 2020,
noted Chaclag. Most came from the maximum-security compound, which
was designed for 6,000 but currently holds 19,000 men. Chaclag said
that the cause of these deaths varied, citing illnesses such as
cancer and heart failure as major ones.
“Loneliness, nightmares, and accidents” were also seen as reasons
for these deaths according to Chaclag.
Prisoners in extremely congested jail facilities live in deplorable
conditions, lacking proper health care, hygiene, and nutrition.
Human rights advocates have called for the early release of elderly
and sickly detainees. They have also pushed for making available
information on death and infection rates.
With Covid-19 breaching Bilibid walls, the deaths are sowing panic
and paranoia among disgruntled detainees who, according to an
insider, fear that the virus has already exploded within prison
The lone Covid-related death from NBP was reported on April 23.
There have been no confirmed Covid-19 cases in Bilibid since, but at
least 44 inmates have been in quarantine, Chaclag confirmed. Four of
them were tested for the virus, with results yet to be released.
Health undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, in a phone interview,
said that only one NBP inmate had tested positive for coronavirus as
of May 4.
A prison insider said bodies were piling up in NBP’s old isolation
ward called Dorm 1D. In late April, at least “20 bodies emitting
foul odor” were stacked there. On May 1, the insider added, three
men died after the NBP hospital ran out of oxygen.
“The inmates plan to hold a noise barrage but Bucor guards
threatened to shoot them,” the insider said.
Chaclag denied this, saying those “who have agenda” should stop
weaving stories that sow paranoia, which could lead to a riot in NBP.
Bodies were not piling up, he said. There were days when the funeral
parlor could not retrieve them because the cause of death was
unknown. “We had to wait for the crematorium personnel to pick them
up,” he explained.
Guidelines issued by the Health department stated that deaths with
unknown causes shall be treated as Covid cases and the corpse
cremated within 12 hours.
Six to five NBP inmates who died in their dormitories were cremated
last month. This is not a known practice in NBP. Bodies without
cause of death were usually autopsied and kept by funeral parlors
until someone claimed them.
Chaclag said that unclaimed bodies in the past were either buried in
the NBP cemetery or were taken advantage of by funeral parlors who
sold them to operators of “sakla,” a form of illegal gambling
carried out during wakes to help families raise funds for burial
expenses. In the case of unclaimed inmates, the earnings simply went
to the pockets of the syndicates.
Old conditions and new virus, a lethal mix
Inmate deaths is a decades-old problem at the New Bilibid Prison.
The global pandemic merely reopened the old Pandora’s box.
The national penitentiary was already in the spotlight last year
because of the alarming number of deaths there. Henry Fabro, the
Bilibid hospital chief, said one prisoner there dies each day.
Humanitarian groups have long blamed overpopulation, poor hygiene,
lack of proper food, and limited access to health care for the
lamentable condition. The calls to depopulate jails have only grown
louder with the coronavirus now part of the equation.
Rights advocates have called for the release of vulnerable inmates,
saying infections in detention areas might risk jail staff and
visitors, and can potentially lead to the reinfection of the general
One of these advocates, Raymund Narag, an associate professor at
Southern Illinois University and expert in Philippine jails, told
PCIJ that there should be transparency in dealing with these
“It is their moral and legal obligation to be transparent. It is the
only way to mitigate the spread of false information. It is also
helpful in crafting policies if information are timely and
accurately provided,” Narag said.
Death and infection rates in detention facilities have always been
difficult to obtain. Like Narag, Human Rights Watch has called for
transparency after learning that one detainee dies every week in
Quezon City Jail since the coronavirus hit the facility last March.
Paul Borlongan, chief doctor of the Bureau of Jail Management and
Penology (BJMP), which supervises city jails, also claims that
BJMP’s death statistics is still “acceptable.”
In recent years, from 300 to 800 detainees have died in BJMP
annually. “So far, I can say that our death statistics is still
acceptable,” Borlongan said, adding that, “we expect 20 to 40 per
week and sometimes 60 to 80 per month.”
Clash of statistics
Transparency is not the only problem. A clash of statistics among
government agencies, and between the local and national governments,
is adding to the confusion.
According to Usec. Vergeire, there were 249 Covid-positive inmates
in jails and prisons as of May 3. Of these, 187 were in Cebu City
Jail, 49 in the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong, 12
in Quezon City Jail, and one in Bilibid.
The facilities that appear to be the hardest hit are the most
congested. Cebu City Jail is overpopulated by 1,000 percent and has
the highest number of inmates at 6,237. Quezon City Jail is the
third most crowded with 3,821 inmates as of March 2020.
As far as BJMP is concerned, only nine inmates – not 12 – from
Quezon City Jail are considered Covid-positive patients. Borlongan
surmised that the three other inmates in DOH’s list were those whose
deaths were considered “possible Covid” cases because they had
flu-like symptoms or pulmonary problems.
As of April 27, BJMP has recorded a total of 195 inmates and 34 jail
staff who tested positive for Covid-19. Five jail personnel had
recovered while none of the inmates have yet to be cleared of the
illness. BJMP also documented cases in Mandaue City Jail, Marikina
City Jail, Pasay City Jail, and Mandaluyong City Jail. These jails
are not in the DOH list.
The City Reformatory Center in Zamboanga City was also reported to
have Covid-positive cases. BJMP’s Borlongan said he has not received
the official report about these cases.
Infections were also reported in the Cebu Provincial Jail, which is
managed by the local government.
A Bucor official, who requested anonymity, also complained of slow
and unreliable test results from the Health department. “We have to
repeat the test each time they release results to us. It’s a waste
of resources. Once, our staff tested positive but when the
Philippine Red Cross rechecked it, the results were negative.”
The World Health Organization, International Committee of the Red
Cross, and the Health department are working alongside Bucor and
BJMP in setting up quarantine facilities for infected detainees.
DOH Undersecretary Vergeire said they also plan to “conduct targeted
testing, provide treatment and management of cases, and ensure that
infection control measures are in place to prevent the spread of
Covid-19 in penal and correctional facilities.”
Prisoner release and other urgent calls
From March 17 to April 29, almost 10,000 inmates have been released
as bid to curb the spread of coronavirus in jails. The Supreme Court
has also allowed the release of pre-trial detainees in jail for
crimes punishable with six-month incarceration and below. A
reduction of bail has been recommended for non-convicts facing
charges punishable with jail time of six months to 20 years.
Petitions seeking temporary freedom for the sick and elderly are
still pending approval.
Last March, Interior secretary Eduardo Año rejected calls to release
vulnerable inmates, saying jails were the “safest” place for them.
The growing number of Covid-19 cases now appear to disprove this
“If many people – prisoners, guards, their families, the people i[n]
neighborhoods around jails – die because of Covid-19, the massacre
is squarely the responsibility of government,” Human rights advocate
and Ateneo de Manila University professor Antonio La Viña said.
Narag and La Viña believe the numbers will still increase and the
full force of Covid-19 is yet to be felt. “I believe that there will
be multiple bombs that will explode. Many PDLs [persons deprived of
liberty] had been dying from many jails… only that it is not
reported as such. But once the news report will catch up, I will not
be shocked,” Narag said.
Warnings about the coronavirus being a bomb that could explode in
jails and prisons were made in early March. These fell on deaf ears
until infections began to manifest, with jails and prisons fast
becoming the next epicenters of the virus. “Our prisons will be
ground zero unless we decongest now,” said La Viña.
Narag and La Viña are urging the government to take swift actions,
stressing that the disease’s spread is a public issue and not only
the problem of the corrections and prison system. “We are already
faced by a problem that can kill us all,” Narag said. –PCIJ, May
Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights
issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at
firstname.lastname@example.org for comments.