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Legally, journalists and members of the media do not have special privileges inside prisons and jails in the Philippines apart from those afforded to ordinary citizens. Generally, journalists’ right to access to information of public interest inside prisons and jails are covered by Article III (Bill of Rights), Section 4: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
Of course, the Philippine government is also duty bound to adhere to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which says that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Journalists who seek to cover prisons and jails, including interviews with inmates and jail personnel, are subject to regulations set by each correctional facility. But information for stories about prison conditions, or specific cases of inmates, can be obtained from sources outside the strict confines of the jails and prisons. Journalists can access courts and their records, lawyers (legal counsels of inmates as well as their public prosecutors), family members, former fellow inmates, friends, and nongovernment organizations and advocacy groups involved in specific cases or specific groups of inmates (e.g. political prisoners, juvenile delinquents or women prisoners) or entire jails or prison facilities.
What are some of the issues that journalists can investigate or write about regarding prison conditions in the Philippines?
Overcrowding. As mentioned earlier, jails and prisons in the country are 411 percent overcrowded in 2020. Stories and images of the country’s congested jails made it to international publications and media outlets in 2019 – shedding light on the crisis of overcrowding in jails and prisons in the Philippines. As for CICLs, of the 15 regional rehabilitation centers for the youth from January to December 2020, six were overcrowded.
Pre-trial detainees. More than 75 percent of incarcerated individuals in the Philippines have cases at the pre-trial stage, according to the World Prison Brief. This increased from 2015 at 69.1 percent. This means that more and more Filipinos are in correctional facilities even as they have yet to stand trial. Instances of jail time lasting longer than their actual sentences are rampant. This fact exposes a deep crisis in the justice system.
Corruption. Every now and then, stories of inmates bribing jail or prison personnel, even officials, for special privileges, surface. In 2019, media reported on allegations that certain BuCor officials sold Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) privileges to convicted murderer-rapist Antonio Sanchez to obtain early release. Only a public outcry blocked Sanchez’s release. The former town mayor died in prison in March 2021.
Deaths inside prisons. Because of overcrowding, lack of sanitation and social services, as well as the prevalence of criminal activities within correctional facilities, among other reasons, deaths inside prisons have been shockingly high. In 2020 alone, deaths among prisoners and detainees reached 1,005, according to data obtained by PCIJ. Cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death, followed by cardiorespiratory failure, pneumonia, septic shock and respiratory failure. The problem has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Twenty-five of the 1,005 deaths were Covid-related, according to BJMP data.
Covid-19 prison lockdowns. How are prisoners and detainees handling lockdowns in this pandemic? Most, if not all, correctional facilities in the country have been at different stages of lockdown. Most of these facilities have not allowed physical visits. Some have set up alternative, internet-based, visitations. Prison and jail personnel have also been locked down together with the prisoners and detainees for weeks on end because of the lockdowns.
— PCIJ, March 2022