Commentary | Pro-active doable measures to protect and save lives of prisoners

Kapatid seeks to join hands with you all to continue pressing government agencies for expedient, positive, humanitarian action for the benefit of prisoners, including political prisoners, amid the continuing pandemic. Tao rin sila, may karapatang makaligtas sa pandemya.

Kapatid Spokesperson

Just last week, two political prisoners died within two days. On May 9, 58-year old Maximo Redota, a peasant organizer held at the Gumaca jail in Quezon, one of the most congested jails in the provinces, died of a stroke at a hospital while awaiting the dismissal of his last trumped-up case.

On May 11, 59-year-old Joseph Canlas, vice chair of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas and leader of its Central Luzon regional alliance, died at the ICU of the Lingad regional hospital in San Fernando, Pampanga. In jail, he was already having difficulty breathing yet his appeals for medical attention were ignored. It was only when he was rushed to the hospital was he tested for COVID-19, which turned out positive.

Their deaths bring to four the number of political prisoners and to an unknown greater number the prisoners who have died during the pandemic from COVID-related diseases. Their deaths illustrate government neglect and gross inaction on the death traps that is the Philippine prison system, despite our urgent petition last year in the Supreme Court to decongest jail populations and to release elderly and medically at-risk prisoners on humanitarian grounds.

When we filed our petition on April 8, 2020, there were only 434 COVID-19 cases in the Philippines. By September 9, 2020, when the Supreme Court finally announced its decision on our petition, the cases had swollen to 248,947 or 573 times bigger. As of May 18, the count is 1,149,925 or 2,650% despite the longest lockdown in the world and the most punitive measures that jail a fish vendor for quarantine breach for not wearing a face mask and make a curfew rule-breaker do 300 squats that cause his death. Plus there’s a new presidential shoot-to-kill threat against face mask violators.

The official capacity for perverted rules is matched by equally perverse rhetoric that prisons are “100-percent COVID-safe” and most recently, that the country’s prison facilities are “managed well” in the midst of the pandemic. Yet, according to news reports, at least 2,416 prisoners in BJMP facilities have contracted COVID-19 while 1,295 personnel were infected.

But although there is NO systematic testing being done in BJMP facilities that hold over 70% of around 215,0000 prisoners in the country, the BJMP says only 26 PDLs and 6 personnel have died during the longest prison lockdown in the world. At alam niyo ba, mula March 2020, hindi pa rin nakakabisita ang mga kamag-anak ng mga PDLs, kasama kami rito. At pahirapan palagi ang pagpasok ng ayuda tulad ng pagkain kahit face masks.

But what do scientific studies say, which cast doubt on the claims of Philippine prison authorities? According to the American Medical Association (July 2020), incarcerated people are infected by the coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall rate. As of April 27, at least 396,295 people in US prisons have tested positive, in separate data compiled by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press. And at least 2,575 prisoners have died of COVID-related causes. A report in September 2020 by the US National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice says the average COVID-19 mortality rate in prisons was more than double the general population.

Now, if this is the rate in the US, where there’s even a cot for every prisoner, how about in the Philippines, where social distancing is impossible and it not uncommon for prisoners to share one tarima or even the floor to sleep at night?

On behalf of Kapatid, I take this opportunity to reiterate the following calls we made in our letter to the DOH on March 2, a day after the first rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in the country. We reiterate that ignoring prisoners in the national efforts to contain COVID-19 will result in failure since prisons and the communities surrounding them are inextricably linked and because prisoners likewise deserve a fighting chance to survive this pandemic.

ONE, elevate elderly and sick prisoners in the list of priority groups for vaccination. Place them in the A-2 and A-3 priority classifications for seniors and those with co-morbidities, instead of lumping them under the B-9 general classification for PDLs. They are most medically vulnerable because subhuman prison conditions put them in greater danger of sickness and death during this pandemic.

TWO, systematize COVID-19 health measures for PDLs and improve the entire healthcare system in jails. This includes regularizing COVID-19 testing aside from mass vaccination. In addition, ensure that maintenance medicines are regularly provided and facilitated for families who send these to their kin. Allow online medical check-ups.

THREE, we ask Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo’s exigent intervention to order an inspection of all prison facilities, including quarantine centers. This is within the High Court’s judicial duties to protect the right to life and health of those in government custody, including the 703 political prisoners.

FOUR, immediately enforce a policy of jail decongestion by releasing more prisoners in more categories, even if on temporary basis. They include the elderly; the sick with pre-existing medical conditions; pregnant and nursing mothers; low-level offenders; those already eligible for parole, pardon and commutation of sentence.

FIVE, stop jailing quarantine offenders and put a stop to political arrests. The government cannot flatten the curve by ignoring the imprisoned population yet putting more people behind bars for quarantine infractions and political motives. What this country needs during this extreme public health crisis are NOT punitive measures but a cohesive, rational, humane response led by medical experts who are better trained to protect and save lives.

SIX, be transparent, tell the truth about what’s really going on inside prison facilities. Provide real-time data about the full extent of sickness and death and other COVID-related information. Issue regular bulletins per facility, including about political prisoners who are particularly most vulnerable because of repeated measures singling them out for harassment. Update the database of prison offices and immediately inform families should their imprisoned kin get sick or die.

SEVEN, regularize online communications of PDLs with their families through programs like e-Dalaw, which is a project set up by the ICRC. Ensure no fees are imposed. Allow online consultations with lawyers that ensure privileged communications between counsel and client.

EIGHT, lift restrictions on food paabot, whether raw or cooked, groceries for cooking and other essential items like face masks, bath and laundry soap, toothpaste, toothbrush. This is an important way that PDLs can receive adequate nutrition and health care while knowing their families care for them. Stop illegal deductions on cash padala that reach 15% at the NBP Muntinlupa. Investigate so-called coops inside jails that overprice goods and have become a money-making operation that prey on prisoners. Stop unjust collection of fees for cooking, bed space, and all other charges which amount to extortion.

Kapatid seeks to join hands with you all to continue pressing government agencies for expedient, positive, humanitarian action for the benefit of prisoners, including political prisoners, amid the continuing pandemic. Tao rin sila, may karapatang makaligtas sa pandemya.

*The author is the wife of Vicente Ladlad, one of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines peace consultants arrested and detained over trumped-up charges.

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