“The government should decongest the prisons by releasing all political prisoners who were falsely accused of crimes just because they were fighting for this country. Those spaces should be taken up by the real criminals, murderers and corrupt government officials. That is social distancing with justice.”
By MENCHANI TILENDO
MANILA — Ofel Beltran-Balleta, 58, has spent years visiting jails and challenging the country’s justice system. She is the daughter of the late Crispin Beltran, also known as “Ka Bel”, a labor leader and a staunch critic of the Arroyo administration. Ka Bel was imprisoned in 2006 and 2007 on trumped-up charges of rebellion and sedition. Ofel is also the mother of Jane Balleta, one of the so-called Morong 43 or a group of health workers who were arrested while they were having a training in Morong, Rizal in 2010. She is also the wife of Santiago Balleta, who was also detained on trumped-up charges.
Fully-aware of the country’s frail justice system, Nanay Ofel knows the tormenting feeling of waiting for loved ones to come home. While she no longer has relatives in prison, her work as a Karapatan volunteer providing services to political prisoners has exposed her to the miserable conditions of inmates.
“It is very stressful and worrisome. Aside from the uncertainty and the slow developments on their cases, these political prisoners also bear the brunt of congested cells and subhuman living conditions. There is no mobility there,” Nanay Ofel Karapatan volunteer told Bulatlat in an online interview.
With the COVID-19 pandemic plaguing the country, relatives of political prisoners and inmates could not help but be anxious. The declaration of Luzon-wide lockdown has resulted in stricter measures in the country’s detention centers, such as temporary prohibition of visits. The sick and elderly who have maintenance medicines, food restrictions, and other needs are the most vulnerable.
The Philippines has the most congested jails in the world since Duterte assumed office. These jails are currently housing thousands prisoners who are mostly poor and cannot afford bail. Based on Supreme Court’s data, 71 percent of these prisoners are victims of false convictions. More than 500 of them are political prisoners.
According to the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) data, the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa has 322 percent congestion rate, with 27,165 inmates in Maximum Security Compound. BuCor also added that 20 percent of the inmates die every year mostly due to overcrowding.
In Taguig City Jail in Bicutan, a cell which could ideally accommodate only six individuals, has at least 80 inmates huddling together. “They take turns lying down, and some are even occupying the comfort rooms,” Nanay Ofel shared.
This grim situation of the Philippine prison system makes it impossible for prisoners to practice “social distancing.” BuCor’s measures of providing face masks and alcohol for inmates is not enough, especially for the sick and elderly who are most susceptible to COVID-19.
Injustice inside jails
“Colds and cough are common among inmates there. When one inmate has the colds, everyone has it. Every time I visit there, I often feel like I could also have the colds. Even during visiting hours, there is not enough space for visiting families to converse with the inmates. We always take turns in occupying the small spaces just to be able to talk to our loved one,” Nanay Ofel added.
“They have inadequate food supply for the inmates. The usual meal is composed of a cup of rice, usually with vegetable viand that looks like a swimming pool (mostly soup with little to no other ingredients). With that kind of situation, nutritious ingredients are just imaginations,” Nanay Ofel jokingly said.
Aside from those in Taguig City Jail in Bicutan, Nanay Ofel has also been a regular visitor of political prisoners in Metro Manila District Jail 4 (MMDJ) – Special Intensive Care Area (SICA). Her last visit there was during the first stage of the “community quarantine”, and she was informed that the inmates have initiated a 10-peso contribution so they could buy cleaning and disinfecting materials.
One of the political prisoners detained in MMDJ 4- SICA is activist and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) – NCR campaigner Ferdinand Castillo, who is now 60 years old. He was arrested and accused of illegal possession of firearms and other heinous crimes such as murder and attempted murder in 2017. He has been suffering from various illnesses such as hypertension, rheumatic heart disease, transient ischemic attack (TIA), and bloody stools. Ferdinand’s wife, Nona Andaya-Castillo, 57, said that it is because of his health condition that Ferdinand has started with a plant-based diet since 1995.
“We’ve been very strict with his diet because we do not want to spend for medicine.That is why it is very crucial that I regularly send him vegetables. If his diet is not strictly followed, his blood pressure could rise. His hypertension have worsened when he was arrested, he was provided with medicine but it didn’t lower his blood pressure,” Nona said.
“If his diet will not be strictly followed, he could die. Their family has a history of heart attack, all of his six cousins died in their 40s due to that illness,” Nona added.
Ferdinand is detained with the “high-profile” prisoners in MMDJ 4- SICA. According to Nona, though they have a 24-hour nurse in Ferdinand’s detention facility, two elderly inmates already died there due to heart attack. “If that could happen at a relatively calmer time, then it could be worse at a time of a disease outbreak,” Nona said.
Like Nona Andaya-Castillo, Xandra Casambre-Bisenio also fears for the health of her father, peace consultant Rey Claro Casambre. Rey was arrested in 2018 and charged with murder and illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
“My father is diabetic and has high blood. Maintenance of his diet is important, that is why the prohibition of our visits will affect his health. Though our organization, KAPATID, has come up with measures to still send them food and medicine, we could only hope that the BJMP (Bureau of Jail Management and Penology) is taking extra effort to augment the provision of food and basic necessities to the prisoners,” Xandra told Bulatlat.
“Relatives and friends make it to a point to be able to send nutritious food for them. This has been the system before the lockdown, this is still the system even until now. The only difference is we could not personally hand the food to them and we could not see them, talk to them”, Xandra added.
Above all these sudden adjustments in detention facilities, Xandra pointed out how these political prisoners shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place. Like many others, her father has been filed with false charges.
Mass release of prisoners for social distancing
KAPATID, a support organization of families and friends of political prisoners in the Philippines, calls on the government to push the mass release of prisoners to avert a COVID-pandemic in the country’s congested jails. The group said the US and Iran governments have implemented this in their countries and released thousands of prisoners, including political prisoners.
KAPATID appeals for the release of low-level offenders, those already due for pardon and parole, the very elderly and the very sick, and at least one spouse from each of ten political prisoner couples.
“While we recognize that prison agencies just cannot release prisoners as they are bound by judicial and legal strictures, we press them to undertake measures that will save human lives even as we further press them to upgrade facilities, resources, and protocols to protect the health of persons deprived of liberty against the COVID-19 contagion,” KAPATID Spokesperson Fides Lim said.
Fides, who is also the wife of peace consultant Vicente Ladlad, stressed that the coverage of the medical furlough should be extended to the elderly and the sick, especially from among the political prisoners, for humanitarian reasons and for just grounds.
For KAPATID, the mass release of prisoners according to the aforementioned grounds is the best measure for social distancing in Philippine jails.
“The government should decongest the prisons by releasing all political prisoners who were falsely accused of crimes just because they were fighting for this country. Those spaces should be taken up by the real criminals, murderers and corrupt government officials. That is social distancing with justice,” Nona ended.