Every night, jail officers of Taguig City Jail Female Dormitory (TCJFD) inside Camp Bagong Diwa in the country capital dispense some mercy on the 287 female persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) at the facility.
“The ‘dorms’ (cells) are so cramped that we open them at night and have some of the detainees sleep in the lobby,” Galilea Carmona, TCJFD assistant warden, told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
Every morning, these PDLs who sleep in the lobby have to wake up early and return to the dorms.
There are four dorms on the third floor of the three-storey facility, each one holding an average of 63 PDLs inside roughly 40 square meters of floor area. It's no bigger than a classroom in a public elementary school.
“Actually, the ideal capacity of [the entire] Taguig female dorm is only 33 people,” said Wena Fe Dalagan, TCJFD’s warden. As of this writing, there are 287 PDLs confined in the facility, bringing the congestion rate at TCJFD to almost 900% or almost thrice the national average.
The jail officers also try to ease the congestion during the day by allowing for sunning and other activities on the rooftop and ground floor.
“At the rooftop, the PDLs conduct many activities. Some do zumba, attend alternative education classes, cook, do gardening, among others. In the ground floor, they share the basketball court with the male PDLs. They do lots of activities,” said Grace Clarence Feliciano, jail officer in charge of PDLs’ welfare and development.
The PDLs have to take short turns, however. They are confined to their dorms for most of the day, crammed together in a claustrophobic’s nightmare.
Advocates, experts, government officials, and PDLs themselves have for years been sounding the alarm on overcrowding in the Philippine jail and prison system.
“In terms of (jail) congestion, we are now second in the world. Actually, it used to be that we were the first. This was in 2016 to 2017, at the height of (President Rodrigo Duterte’s) drug war. We had a 605 percent congestion rate then. Now we’re down to 300 percent. But it’s still a lot,” said Prof. Raymund Narag, foremost expert on Philippine jails and prisons and associate professor at the School of Justice and Public Safety in Southern Illinois University, in an interview with PCIJ.
Overcrowded jail and prison cells gave rise to a host of other problems, from shortage of resources and facilities, to lack of food and access to social services, to public health issues especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mass releases have been implemented in recent years to address jail congestion, but very few additional facilities have been built from 2017 to 2019, data from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) showed. The bureau's proposed budget for 2023 allots for the construction of only one district jail for the entire country.
Jail authorities are often compelled to look for other ways to expand their facilities. “For me, to ease congestion, we need a new facility. Because right now, the entire building is shared by male and female inmates. We requested the local government (of Taguig City), if they have available funds, to build a new, four-storey building (for female PDLs),” Dalagan said.
Narag said the jail system needs stronger support from the national and local governments in terms of budget and construction of additional facilities.
TOP PHOTO. PDLs gather at a basketball court inside the Taguig City Jail Female Dormitory for a Zumba session. Photo courtesy of TCJFD
Jail officers and personnel of the Taguig City Jail Female Dormitory. Photo courtesy of TCJFD
Government support, Narag added, should include hiring and training more personnel.
“Under the laws, the custodial ratio (or ratio of jail personnel to PDL) should be one to seven. But now it hovers around one to 80. In certain circumstances, it is one to 500,” said Narag. Because of this, jails and prisons often resort to “organizational coping.”
“The lack of (BJMP and Bureau of Corrections or BuCor) employees is the reason we have the ‘mayores’ (cell leaders) system. The lack of resources is the reason we have the VIP system (VIPs augment prison funds). The lack of programs is the reason we have the ‘pangkat’ system (groups or territories inside jails). And then, there are many other coping mechanisms,” he explained.
These systems are very much present in TCJFD.
“When there are issues among PDLs inside a dorm, the PDLs can talk to the coordinator in each dorm. They are the ones who respond to these issues,” said Sally Ujano, a political detainee in TCJFD since November 2021.
Each dorm leader or coordinator relays the PDLs’ problems or concerns to the jail officers. Ujano described Warden Dalagan as “very open” to dialogue.
“(The jail officers) often say that in issues that they cannot address, their last option is to seek the help of political prisoners. These are sure to yield positive results. The jail authorities always hear out political prisoners who seek dialogue with them or ask them to reconsider some actions or decisions,” said Rowena Rosales, another political prisoner in TCJFD.
Political prisoners are PDLs whose imprisonment are politically-motivated. Often, they are charged with common crimes that they claim are “trumped up.”
Narag said that, technically, these systems of authority are not allowed under BJMP guidelines. Nevertheless, they are “informally allowed.”
Because of the lack of personnel to handle large jail populations, the PDLs themselves resort to self-governance.
“In other jails, they have what they call ‘jury,’ when they need to punish someone internally. In bigger jails, they have ‘bastonero’ (tasked to ensure cells’ cleanliness and implement ‘jury’ decisions),” said lawyer Kristina Conti, who represents some of the political prisoners in TCJFD like Rosales.
“In most facilities in the country, we have these systems. In police precincts, we already have mayores and pangkat systems. And then when PDLs are transferred to BJMP and provincial jails, these systems are also in place. And then when it comes to BuCor prisons, the gangs are now quite big. Sputnik, for example, has a membership of 2,000 to 3,000,” added Narag.
These systems, said Narag, while helpful for self-governance, blur “professional boundaries” between jail personnel and PDLs, and sometimes result in misconduct and corruption.
For the past few years, BJMP has pegged the budget for food for each detainee at P70 per day. This, Warden Dalagan admitted, is not nearly enough to provide for the PDLs’ nutritional needs.
“According to computations from our bureau’s nutritionists, the provision of P70 per day does not really meet the calorie requirements that a person needs every day,” she added.
The menu, Rosales said, usually consists of vegetables “in small quantities.” “For example: upo (bottle gourd), squash, togue (sprouting mung beans), papaya, puso ng saging (banana blossom), among others,” she said.
“Usually, they offer lots of carbohydrates (cooked rice, porridge, soup, spaghetti, champorado, etc.) and some protein,” Ujano added.
Some PDLs depend on ‘paabot’ or cooked food handed from relatives who regularly visit them.
PDLs maintain a vegetable garden at the jail rooftop. Photo by Kenneth Roland Guda
Fides Lim, national spokesperson of Kapatid, which is an organization of relatives and supporters of political prisoners, said that implementing regulations on ‘paabot’ often depends on the jail officers. “Some jails don’t allow it, although if asked, they will deny that they don’t allow ‘paabot’,” she said.
Then there is also the problem of food inspections. Inspections are done, said BJMP, to ensure that no contraband materials are smuggled into the jail. “I tell them, ‘Inspect our food, but we don’t want you to dirty it’. Some inspect using sticks that they dip into cooked food. We don’t even know if the sticks are clean,” Lim added.
Dalagan said that they find other ways to help meet the nutritional needs of PDLs. They look for food donors, or sponsor activities and projects to raise funds that would augment the food budget.
Narag explained, though, that these “stop-gap” solutions, while helpful in the short term, are not sustainable and do not really address the problem of a lack of budget for PDLs’ food.
Another byproduct of jail congestion is the lack of access to health services for PDLs. BJMP allots a measly P15 per day for the medical needs of each PDL.
This problem is especially glaring for female PDLs, who, in addition to the need to access general health services, need women-specific necessities and services. These include sanitary napkins and prenatal and postnatal care for pregnant women.
In May 2022 alone, according to BJMP, there were 65 pregnant PDLs throughout the country, with 34 or more than half of them in jails in the National Capital Region (NCR) like TCJFD.
Since Dalagan became TCJFD warden in 2020, she said she has had about 10 pregnant PDLs under her care. “Currently, I have two pregnant PDLs – eight and seven months pregnant. When they have no relatives able to care for their babies, we coordinate with DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) to care for the newborn,” she added.
Dalagan said it is BJMP policy that newborn babies be removed from their mothers who are PDLs. “We have not approved, so far, for newborns to stay with their mothers in jail, especially now with the pandemic. The area is too risky for babies,” she added.
But Conti said international standards like the United Nations (UN) Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (or the Bangkok Rules), of which the Philippines is bound, say that children born in jails and prisons should be taken care of according to “best interests of the child.”
It is almost always in the best interest of the child, she said, to release the mother and child, place them outside regular jails, or at least not separate them, especially when the mother breastfeeds her baby.
Dalagan said that in her two years as warden in TCJFD, she has not encountered a case of a breastfed baby allowed by the courts to remain with its PDL mother.
Slow justice system
On average, according to Ujano and Rosales, inmates spend three to five years in TCJFD before their cases are resolved.
“Now, there are, I think, three PDLs here for at least 10 years. Hopefully, their cases will be resolved soon,” said Warden Dalagan.
Narag observed that from the arraignment to trial and promulgation of cases, hearings are scheduled months apart, and often postponed.
“Usually, the reasons for the postponement are when either the judge, defense attorney, or prosecutor is absent for whatever reason. Sometimes you have two years, three years of that,” he added.
This snail-paced process is compounded by the problem of unoccupied courts.
In his research, Narag found that 16.75 percent of trial courts in the country were unoccupied in 2019 – usually due to judges’ retirement, resignation, or death. It usually takes six months before the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) recommends to the President the replacements. Then the new judges still have to go through training.
“So you have to wait for at least one year for the hearings to resume when the judge that has been hearing your case resigns, retires, or dies,” he added.
Meanwhile, there is also a shortage of public attorneys under the Public Attorneys Office (PAO). Conti suggested that the government compel private lawyers to take on a required number of PAO cases each year – with appropriate financial compensation from the government.
Warden Dalagan said they do what they can to help with the release of PDLs with bailable offenses. About 50 percent of cases against PDLs nationwide are bailable offenses. The problem, said Narag, is that most do not have the means to pay for bail.
Narag has been involved in initiatives to help decongest jails like the Community Bail Bond Philippines, which seeks to raise funds for bailing out low-risk, first-time bailable PDLs, and the Single Carpeta System, a project to digitize and centralize records of cases from the BJMP to BuCor to the Parole and Probation Administration (PPA).
Need for paradigm shift
These initiatives, of course, are a drop in the bucket as long as the system views imprisonment or detention as the main form of punishment for crimes.
A paradigm shift is in order, said Conti. She and other human rights lawyers have been conducting workshops with jail officers to better acquaint them with international standards in jail management.
As far as possible, she said, the system should allow for non-custodial measures in law enforcement. This means that authorities should exhaust all means for “restorative justice” or rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation and other measures that do not include confining them in jails or prisons.
This kind of justice system has been outlined in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial Measures or the Tokyo Rules.
“The government should not be, like, when a person commits a crime, the default strategy is always to throw that person in jail,” Narag said.
The punishment for drug-related offenses, for instance, has been especially severe. “When a person is caught selling a sachet of illegal drugs, that’s already six to 12 years in jail,” he added.
With the criminalization of health issues like drug addiction, and also political dissidence, it is no surprise that jails like TCJFD are congested.
It is a strong rebuke to the government and the penal system when PDLs and their relatives, advocates, and even jail officers, take the initiative to look for temporary or piecemeal solutions to a serious humanitarian crisis. END