The Philippines has released a total of 9,731 inmates in an apparent move to decongest its jails as the country grapples with an increasing number of COVID-19 cases, a Supreme Court (SC) official said on Saturday.
The move follows a directive to lower courts to release those awaiting trial in prison because they could not afford bail, Associate Supreme Court Justice Mario Victor Leonen told reporters.
“The court is very much aware of the congested situation in our prisons,” Leonen told reporters as he announced the release.
Of the number, the SC said that 2,082 prisoners were released from Metro Manila jails; 4,657 in other areas in Luzon outside the metropolis; 1,072 in Visayas and 1,920 in Mindanao.
Covid-19 outbreaks have been reported at some of the country’s most overcrowded jails, affecting both inmates as well as corrections personnel.
To further decongest local jails, the SC also ordered all justices, judges, prosecutors, public attorneys and all members of the Bar to reduce bail and recognizance as modes for releasing indigent prisoners amid the pandemic.
Social distancing is all but impossible in the country’s prison system, where cells are sometimes filled to five times their capacity due to inadequate infrastructure and a slow-moving and overburdened judicial system.
Overcrowding has become an even greater problem since President Rodrigo Duterte launched a drug crackdown in 2016 that has resulted in thousands being sent to prison.
Among those which have reported outbreaks are the Quezon City Jail in Manila, a facility so crowded that inmates take turns sleeping on staircases and on open-air basketball courts.
The worst outbreaks so far are at two prisons in the central island of Cebu, where two city jails have announced a combined 348 infections among more than 8,000 inmates as of Friday.
The outbreaks have fuelled calls from rights groups for the early release of prisoners charged with non-violent offences as well as the sick and elderly.
The Supreme Court earlier slashed bail for indigent detainees for offenses with a penalty of six months and one day to 20 years in a bid to decongest jails and stop transmission of the virus.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque earlier said that the Department of Justice is “expediting” the processing of parole and probation for convicts to decongest prisons after hundreds of prisoners tested positive for the COVID-19.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has built quarantine facilities to serve inmates in crowded Metro Manila jails.
With the continued spread of the COVID-19 in the Philippines, the ICRC expressed its deep concern for the health of detainees and detention staff, given the current levels of congestion in detention facilities in the Philippines.
The Philippines has reported nearly 9,000 coronavirus infections and 603 deaths. (Source: Bangkok Post)