Rights group calls on Philippine govt. to reduce crowded jails to stop COVID-19 spread


To stem the COVID-19 outbreak, Philippine authorities should release inmates who have been detained or convicted for low-level and non-violent offences from the country’s overcrowded jails and prisons, Human Rights Watch suggested.

The Philippines has the highest jail occupancy rate in the world, exacerbated by the Duterte government’s “war on drugs,” in which hundreds of thousands of people have been jailed since July 2016.

Since March 2020, the arrests and temporary detention of thousands of people for violating curfews and quarantine regulations have further crowded police lockups and jails.

The international rights group also suggested that Philippine authorities should consider releasing older prisoners and those with underlying medical conditions who would be at greater risk if they became infected.

“The Philippine government should urgently reduce overcrowding in detention facilities, by releasing minor offenders and prioritizing the release of older prisoners and those with underlying health conditions at particular risk from COVID-19,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Failure to act now could result in a serious outbreak in the country’s jails and prisons, threatening the lives of prisoners whose health the authorities have a duty to protect.”

The combined population in prisons run by the Philippine Bureau of Corrections, where convicted people are incarcerated, and the jails run by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology for those on trial or pre-trial was 215,000 as of November 2019. All these facilities combined have a maximum capacity of 40,000.

Prisoners’ relatives and nongovernmental groups have sought, without success, to obtain the temporary release of sick and older prisoners on humanitarian grounds.

One woman told Human Rights Watch that her 62-year-old father was arrested in January during a drug raid, detained at a Metro Manila jail, and is on trial for drug possession. She said he has a weakened immune system and last week had a cold and fever.

“We have written to the jail warden asking to at least transfer my father to a separate facility to allow social distancing, but we have been ignored so far,” she said. “We’re really worried because we know already there’s not enough space in jail for the inmates and now with COVID-19, naturally we’re even more worried.”

A political activist, Fides Lim, told Human Rights Watch: “We have been pressing for the immediate release of prisoners with low-level offenses, the elderly, the sick, and the pregnant who are most at risk for severe disease or death if infected with the coronavirus, as well as those already due for parole, and those due for release, which was interrupted by quarantine regulations.”

In addition to the government, the Supreme Court can order a prisoner released on health and humanitarian grounds if a petition is filed with the court, said Raymund Narag, a criminal justice expert. The Supreme Court could also issue a circular that would allow judges on humanitarian grounds to reduce bail or release a detainee on their own recognizance.

COVID-19, like other infectious diseases, poses a higher risk to people who live in close proximity to one another. Congestion in the Philippine prison system and other concurrent health problems have been well documented.

The chief of the hospital at the New Bilibid prison, the country’s national penitentiary, said that about 5,200 inmates die every year from tuberculosis and other illnesses, as well as violence – about 20 percent of the prison’s total population.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, raised an alarm on March 25 about detention facilities and COVID-19 around the world, warning of “catastrophic consequences” if the prison population is neglected. Among the measures she called for are early release of vulnerable detainees. (Source: HRW)