A humanitarian crisis, a monster in our midst

State of the PH in 2018: Our jails
are now world’s most congested

Narag_Govt Shortcomings-Photo_PCIJ

THE WAR on drugs and the mass arrest of the loiterers and the shirtless under the Duterte administration have triggered a monstrous humanitarian crisis: Philippine jails and detention centers are now the most overcrowded in the world, eclipsing erstwhile topnotcher Haiti.

In this report for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, visiting professor Dr. Raymund Narag of Southern Illinois University’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice reveals fresh but worrisome data that he has gathered from his training seminars for jail personnel and nongovernment organizations working for the welfare of inmates.

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A HUMANITARIAN crisis is facing the Philippine corrections. The Philippine National Police (PNP) detention centers, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) and provincial jails, and the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) prisons are not only full to the brim, they are teeming with emaciated and disease-carrying bodies.

On June 30, 2016, upon assumption of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the country, the BJMP population stood at 96,000 inmates or Persons Deprived of Liberties (PDLs). Now, two years and three State of the Nation Addresses (SONA) after, the BJMP population stands at 160,000 PDLs. That is a staggering growth of 64 percent in two years.

That population does not include the 30-percent increase in BuCor prisons, and the unquantifiable growth in PNP detention cells and provincial jails where data are scantly collected and tallied.

We are now officially the most overcrowded correctional facilities in the whole world: our 605-percent congestion rate is far ahead of Haiti’s 320 percent, the second most crowded.

In some jails, it is even worse: the Quezon City Jail Male Dorm has a rated bed capacity of 286; it now has 3,911 inmates, meaning it is over-congested by 1,000 percent, even after many other PDLs had already been transferred to the Quezon City Jail Annex in Bicutan, Taguig.

Other jails have recorded 3,000-percent over-congestion. With the current rate in which the police are arresting drug users and tambays, the population growth will continue to rise.

This humanitarian crisis has taken a massive toll on the physical and mental health of the PDLs.

In the Quezon City Jail Male Dorm alone, around three to five inmates die every month due to simple and easy-to-treat diseases like manas (swelling), rumbu-rumbu (skin diseases), as well as heart attack — all because of lack of ventilation and lack of access to medical care.

In the whole Metro Manila, around 40 PDLs die every month in the different BJMP jails.

Unrecorded tragedies

Death rates are worse in PNP detention centers, though most of these go unrecorded. Most PNP cells are single detention cells where 50 to 100 PDLs are cramped in cells designed for four to six people; additionally, PNP does not have a budget for food and medicines for detainees, unlike the BJMP and the BuCor, both of which have a budget of PhP60 per day per inmate for food.

Last week, a flesh-eating skin disease struck the Manila Police District Station 9 and killed a PDL shortly after he was transferred to the Manila City Jail Male Dormitory. The crowding also leads to violence among inmates causing the death of Genesis ‘Tisoy’ Argoncillo, a tambay arrestee, in the hands of two veteran inmates.

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Click to view video: Narag_Jail Congestion_PCIJ

Aside from the deaths, a number of inmates have acquired highly communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, red eyes, and small pox in the detention and jail facilities due to the face-to-face proximity.

The Department of Health (DOH) should be alerted of the many new cases of communicable diseases acquired by PDLs that could be transmitted to many others once the PDLs are released. The DOH should declare a state of calamity in the local detention centers and jails.

De facto punishment

The sudden growth of the PDL population has also overwhelmed our criminal-justice system. The number of the local courts, judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers has mostly remained stagnant. As such, despite the best efforts of the Supreme Court to speed up the disposition of cases, criminal-trial proceedings still flow slowly.

Innovations in the judiciary aimed at speeding up the process have included the Continuous Trial, where judges are instructed to conduct marathon hearings, and the Task Force Katarungan and Kalayaan (TFKK), where BJMP paralegal officers identify Detainees of Interest (DOI) or detainees who have exceeded three years of stay in Regional Trial Courts (RTC) and six months in Metropolitan Trial Courts (MTC) and alert their respective judges. And yet data from the BJMP Jails show that, on average, PDLs stay in jail for 372 days from time of detention until disposition.

Around 20 percent of the PDLs have stayed in jail for at least two years. Some inmates stay in jail for more than 18 years, only to be acquitted. Ironically, it takes longer to be acquitted than to be convicted. This suggests that time in detention has become a de facto mechanism to punish PDLs.

One inmate in Bohol District Jail has so far spent 15 years in jail, 10 years of which went by without his having a trial. As of this writing, that inmate is still undergoing trial and presumed innocent.

Court actors are also suffering the consequences of the sudden PDL population growth and should not be blamed for the delay of cases. Despite their best efforts, they are in a bind.

Interviews with judges suggest that they, too, are physically suffering from their heavy caseloads. In urban areas, judges can be handling as many as 2,000 to 3,000 criminal cases at a time. This number does not include civil and administrative cases filed in their salas. Two judges also share one prosecutor and one public defender. Worse, they can be assigned in multiple jurisdictions.

Deepened distrust

Judges work triple time just to keep their caseloads manageable. They schedule 20 to 30 trials a day, spending their weekends writing decisions, compromising their social, physical, and mental health. Many judges, prosecutors, and public defenders also get promoted or transferred while hearing cases, while others resign or die before the cases are done. Any change in personnel easily translates to six months to one year of delay for the inmates.

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Click to view video: Narag_Overwhelmed Courts_PCIJ

The delay in cases has deepened the distrust in the criminal justice system. As a coping mechanism, PDLs try to shorten the hearings, find ways to elude the system, exploit opportunities to bribe police, prosecutors, and judges, and pay off guards.

Interviews with PDLs suggest that they want to undergo the whole trial proceedings squarely; yet, they also know that they are already punished even if they are not yet found guilty. Worse, legal and extralegal opportunities are usually acquired by PDLs with resources, thus furthering the belief that is it only the poor that are carrying the brunt of the inequities of the justice system.

Broken justice system

For most people unaware of its dynamics, case delay is a manifestation of a broken justice system, which furthers their legal cynicism. Thus, the following narratives have been socially accepted: it is okay to kill criminals and drug users if they are caught in the act, if they are given a warning and did not change, if caught numerous times, and if they will simply evade arrest and conviction. These public sentiments also justify lengthy detention in horrible, humanitarian-crisis conditions. The President himself has articulated it: let them suffer in detention centers, jails, and prisons.

Unnoticed in the public support for massive incarceration is the financial toll to the society. While the budget per inmate is pitiful, when aggregated, it still drains our limited resources.

The budget per inmate per year is PhP74,000, which is double the tuition of students in public colleges and three times the budget in elementary and secondary education.

With the conservative estimated increase of 100,000 inmates from detention centers, jails, and prisons for the past two years, the government spent PhP2.9 billion for food alone. That does not include the operational cost to run the facilities and the lost economic contribution of the detained workforce, which is way higher.

Social, financial toll

What has led to this humanitarian crisis?

It is the President’s belief that the detention centers, jails, and prisons should be as difficult as they can be to serve as a deterrent to future criminals, drug dealers, and users. He believes that by sending them to jails and prisons, they will learn from their mistakes and make amends. And for the incorrigible, those who continue to use drugs despite repeated warnings, and those who they resist arrest and fight the police, the President has repeatedly encouraged the law enforcement to use deadly force.

The President’s underlying and unstated policy, usually incoherently mumbled in different speeches is: I am going to protect my beloved country at all costs. As he has curtly, and repeatedly, stated: If you destroy my country, I will kill you.

Two years on, has such a policy made a dent? Are all the arrests and deaths, the social and financial costs associated with the war on drugs worth it? Have we become more peaceful? Are the horrible inhuman facilities deterrent to crime?

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Click to video video: Narag_Govt Shortcomings_PCIJ
For a punishment to be an effective deterrent, it must be swift, severe, and certain. The offender should understand that the punishment is intended for him or her. It means that for the horrible inhumane detention in jail and prison facilities to be a deterrent, it must be imposed swiftly, severely, and with certainty. The offender should also understand that the horrible inhumane facility is intended for him or her. If not, then all of these massive arrests and killings will not make a difference. It will simply drain our country’s human resources without changing the root causes of the problems.

Interviews with PDLs suggest that this is the case. From their perspective, it is not a deterrent to whatever behavior or act it was that got them into trouble. When asked if they voted for Duterte during the presidential elections or if they support him upon winning, they overwhelmingly report yes. Most PDLs say they voted and support him because of his staunch action against drugs. They say that they concur to the notion that drug users deserved to be killed.

When asked what brought them to jail, 75 percent point to drugs. But while many admit to being drug users, all claim that when the police arrested them, whatever evidence was used against them was planted.

When asked why they continue to use drugs when so many have already been killed and arrested, they say, “Hindi naman kami ‘yung addict na sinasabi niya (We aren’t the addicts the President is referring to).” Or, “Paminsan-minsan lang naman kaming gumagamit (We use drugs only once in a while).” Or, “Gumagamit lang kami para suportahan ang trabaho (We use drugs only to keep our energy up for work).”

In their mind, the message is not for them; it is for someone else – “Sa iba ‘yun!” The President’s technique of othering — “basta’t hindi ka addict, safe ka” (as long as you are not an addict, you are safe)” — also applies to them. Thus, they don’t feel threatened and they continue to do drugs.

Coupled with the delay in case proceedings (lack of swiftness) and the erroneous police methodologies (lack of certainty), the PDLs don’t see a connection between their drug use and the punishing conditions (lack of severity). Massive killings and arrests, and overcrowded jails and prisons therefore have no deterrent effect when it comes to perennial drug users.

More meaningful tracts

Admittedly, this qualitative information is anecdotal, and more interviews need to be conducted before one can generalize the findings. Still, this puts in to question the utility of horrible correctional facilities as deterrents to crime and drug use.

More importantly, it suggests that other more meaningful tracts need to be entertained by the highly popular President to effect change in the criminal-justice system.

He can start by improving the correctional conditions, increasing the number of court actors, and professionalizing the police, jail, and prison services.

He can adopt the principles of effective correctional management where PDLs are properly classified, housed and treated while in jails and prisons, so they can later be released as responsible citizens of the country. He can use many advocates of jail and prison reforms as partners who share his frustrations about the justice system but offer more humane approaches.

He can also permanently halt the wanton arrests of tambays and drug users.

These policies have created a monster in our criminal justice system, a monster that is used to justify the use of more punitive policies. This humanitarian crisis has afflicted our correctional system, and will all haunt us down the road, three more SONAs from now. — PCIJ, July 2018