Cramped cells, inhumane conditions, injustices for poor prisoners

While the rich could buy privileges in jail and mock the justice system, just like what former Batangas governor Antonio Leviste and other high-profile convicts did, the poor, who include political prisoners, suffer from torture, inhumane prison conditions and injustices.


MANILA – While wealthy prisoners are accorded special treatment, ordinary detainees, including political prisoners, suffer from abject misery.

This was revealed by human rights group Karapatan and Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (Selda) during a congressional hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Justice, June 7 at the National Bilibid Prisons (NBP) in Muntinlupa City.

There are 336 political prisoners languishing in 63 detention centers nationwide. There are 99,000 prisoners all over the country.

“The recent exposés on the special treatment and privileges given to VIPs and moneyed prisoners are just the tip of the iceberg of the prevalent unjust jail conditions in the Philippines, but these have also revealed the conditions in one of the worst penal systems in the world,” Selda and Karapatan said in their joint position submitted to the committee.


Ernesto Dumlao, a political prisoner who has asthma, has been sleeping on the floor of the Quezon City Jail because he cannot pay for a “tarima” (cot) that costs P3,000 ($69).

The Quezon City Jail was built to house only 815 detainees but 3,400 inmates are there. Each prisoner has 0.28 square meter living space, way below the three-to four-square meter per person minimum standard set by the United Nations (UN) for the treatment of prisoners.

According to the 2010 US State Department Report on Human Rights in the Philippines, the DILG reported that its jails operate at an average of 400 percent over their designated capacity, and that Manila City Jail, built to hold 1,000 inmates held 5,300 inmates at year’s end, while the nation’s primary prison in Muntinlupa is nearing 500 percent of its operating capacity.

“That is why most prisoners live and sleep in very cramped quarters or floors, without any proper ventilation and lighting, with sinks and toilet bowls cramped in their small cells,” Selda and Karapatan said.

Wealthy inmates, meanwhile, have comfy cottages, cell phones, air-conditioning, flat screen televisions, laptops, queen-sized beds, Lazy-boy recliners, lucrative drug businesses within the prison, and are allowed to go out of the premises of the prison facility any time of the day they wish to, the groups said.

“Inhumane conditions in jail are, by and large, a result of the framework of retribution and punishment in our prison system. Prisoners are being punished by depriving them of their basic human rights to nutrition and food, decent shelter, clean and potable water, and the like,” Selda and Karapatan said.

Even with a combined budget of P6.66 billion ( $154 million) in the 2011 budget of the Bureau of Corrections and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, prison administrators only allocate a daily subsistence allowance of P50 ($1.15) per prisoner. Selda and Karapatan said that with such a measly allowance, the prisoners’ daily meals are way below nutrition standards, exacerbating their poor health.

In 2010, the BuCor and the BJMP reported 871 deaths in prison due to various illnesses, including cardiopulmonary arrest and pulmonary tuberculosis. Many have also been deprived of proper and timely medical attention. Asthma, tuberculosis, beri-beri, diabetes, cataract, hepatitis and other diseases are common among the detainees.

Such is the case of Rolando Pañamogan, a political prisoner, who has been suffering from diabetes, deep toxic goiter, and congestive heart failure. Pañamogan is currently confined at the NBP hospital due to lowered blood pressure, a complication of his diabetes, where facilities and attending medical personnel are scarce.

The 2010 US State Department report cited that some prisoners, including women and children, were abused by other prisoners and prison personnel.

In an alternative report on the Philippines submitted by international NGO Just Detention International to the 42nd Session of the United Nations Committee Against Torture (April 2009), it is cited that, in one of the few official studies conducted on prisoner rape in the Philippines, four percent of 552 female jail inmates surveyed reported to the DILG that they had experienced sexual abuse while detained. Seven of the women had been raped, while others were subjected to abusive conduct including sexual touching, kissing, corrections officials exposing their genitalia, and attempted rape. A more recent study found that ten percent of the women detainees surveyed had had sex with jail officials prior to their transfer to the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW), illuminating the widespread abuse of women inmates by corrections staff.

Former political prisoner Angelina Ipong, who was 60 years old at the time of her arrest in 2005, was subjected to sexual molestation by soldiers of the Southern Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. After six years in jail, all the charges against Ipong were eventually dismissed.

Karapatan and Selda maintain that the conditions of prisoners in the country violate the prisoners’ human rights as mandated and protected by the Philippine Constitution, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as other human rights instruments.

Political prisoners

Political prisoners suffer most. They are victims of the government’s covert policy of political persecution against persons with different political beliefs. They are charged with fabricated common crimes, conveniently hiding the political nature of their cases.

“To keep from public knowledge the extent of illegal arrests and detention of government critics and political activists, political offenses are criminalized,” Tita Lubi, Karapatan vice chairperson and former political detainee, said.

Most of the political prisoners were arrested with no arrest warrants or have faulty and hastily secured warrants. Many were subjected to torture. Some were held incommunicado for days before they were surfaced. Their right to speedy trial is often violated, with charges after charges being filed against them.

Karapatan and Selda said there is a need to “reorient the current prison system from its punitive and retribution framework to one of reform and rehabilitation.”

The groups called on Congress and President Benigno Aquino III to recognize, protect and promote the basic human rights of prisoners; comprehensively address the roots of the criminal offenses and the injustices in the judicial system in the country that makes legal remedies inaccessible to the poor; and immediately release all political prisoners who are being unjustly incarcerated for trumped up charges.


Karapatan and Selda have been calling for general, unconditional and omnibus amnesty for political prisoners.

This means that all political prisoners covered by the effectivity of an amnesty proclamation should be released with no preconditions, such as “admission of guilt.” Omnibus means that all charges or offenses are covered by the amnesty proclamation.

So far, Aquino granted amnesty to some 400 rebel soldiers.

Lubi recalled that under the administrations of former President Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, political prisoners were released.

The first Aquino administration granted amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners, including Jose Maria Sison. The release was not out of Aquino’s benevolence, Dr. Carol Araullo, chairwoman of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), pointed out but was “part of the momentum of the anti-fascist struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.”

Lubi said that Ramos ordered the release after the hunger strike of political prisoners at the NBP and Cebu detention facilities.

“The Aquino government which purports to take the ‘righteous path’ cannot but end the injustice and violations of rights committed against the political prisoners,” Lubi said.

Lubi also said it is about time that the Aquino administration complies with the provisions of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) upholding the Hernandez doctrine or the prohibition against criminalizing political offenses. (

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