By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – It’s been a year since Erlinda Perez, 51, was able to visit her daughter Gee-Ann in prison.
Restrictions due to the novel coronavirus has denied her of this privilege. Erlinda is worried because her daughter had leprosy, making her prone to contracting the deadly virus in the congested prison facility.
Ge-Ann was arrested together with National Democratic Front of the Philippines peace consultant Frank Fernandez and his wife Cleofe Lagtapon in March 2019. She is now detained at Taguig City Jail Female Dorm.
Erlinda said that her last visit to her daughter was last March 8, 2020, a week before the strict community quarantine was imposed in the capital and other provinces.
“I can only talk to her through phone calls every other week, depending on the queue in the facility,” she told Bulatlat in a telephone interview.
Perez and other families of political prisoners who are of old age or have health conditions have expressed their fears of the possibility that their loved ones may contract the virus in the highly congested prisons. This is why they filed a petition to the Supreme Court to temporarily release 22 political prisoners based on humanitarian grounds.
After five months, the SC released its decision remanding the petition to the lower courts for resolution
Writ of Kalayaan
With the death of another political prisoner in jail, Kapatid reiterated their call for the promulgation of the writ of kalayaan – a legal remedy proposed by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen in his separate opinion to the SC ruling on political prisoners’ petition.
According to Kapatid, five political prisoners have already died in prison without any resolution to the trumped up charges against them. The recent was Jesus Alegre, a 75-year old political prisoner who died of illness.
Kapatid’s Fides Lim said that promulgating the writ of kalayaan will “protect the right to life and health of those in government custody, including the political prisoners who suffer the worst abuse of deliberate neglect.”
A writ of kalayaan, according to Leonen, “should be issued when all the requirements to establish cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment are present.”
“This is necessary considering that the continued and malicious congestion of our jails does not affect only one individual. Its issuance is grounded on this Court’s rule-making authority and the extreme situation brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Leonen said in his separate opinion.
But during his first press conference, Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo said this proposal may take time.
Lim, however, asserts that the “time to adopt and adapt rules is now. Not tomorrow, not according to circumstances, but now because the impact of the pandemic is worse in congested prisons.”
She added that just last May, two political prisoners died within three days.
“On average, two to three prisoners die each day, according to the DOJ itself which supervises Bureau of Corrections jails,” Lim pointed out.
“The writ of kalayaan provides a judicial remedy grounded on social justice and humanity to address the problems of extreme jail congestion amid the continuing pandemic and violations of the rights of people deprived of liberty,” Lim added.
As of the January 2020 statistic on prison congestion of the Bureau of Correction, the congestion rate in NBP alone is at 349 percent.
Lim asked Gesmundo “to convene a national consultative summit on the writ of kalayaan that can be done by videoconference, similar to the multisectoral summit organized on July 16-17, 2007 by Chief Justice Reynato Puno which consolidated inputs and support for the trailblazing writ of amparo and habeas data to strengthen protection and enforcement of constitutional rights in the face of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.”
Perez said it makes her worry more whenever Ge-Ann does not call her. She cannot sleep, she said, especially since she has been in Cebu since August 2020 due to the lockdown.
Perez said Ge-Ann has to be constantly monitored to ensure that her immune system will not go down. Right now, according to her daughter, she still has vitamins to take.
“Our fear is for our parents to be infected by the virus because once there is an infected person there (in jail) it will definitely spread,” said Joy Pascual, daughter of couple Virginia and Alberto Villamor. The Villamor couple were arrested together with peace consultant Vicente Ladlad.
Both of Pascual’s parents have multiple health conditions. Her mother, Virginia, has hypertension, vertigo, and acute skin allergy. Her father, Alberto, just recovered from a stroke in 2018 when they were arrested.
Because they needed maintenance medicine, one of the problems they encounter is the need to bring the supplies to them in prison. Through the help of Kapatid, she said they have to assert that medical and food supplies be allowed to be sent to those who are in prison. The warden later on authorized the entering of supplies for all prisoners, she said.
“We can send them their supplies now, at least once a month,” she said.
Like Perez, they can only talk to their mother through e-dalaw or electronic visitation or through a telephone call. Their father is in a different jail facility in Camp Bagong Diwa, also in Taguig City, but has no privilege for regular phone calls with the family.
Families of political prisoners like Pascual and Perez dreads the news of political prisoners who are dying inside the prison facility, the reason why they have been persistent in their call for humanitarian release.
“I was saddened by the news of Ka Joseph’s passing because of COVID-19 even if I don’t know him personally. I became more worried not only for my daughter but all of the prisoners who are old and are sick,” she said.
Pascual also said she hopes that her parents will not die in prison.
She said that there is no adjustment made inside the prison. “The condition is the same. There is no social distancing. In fact, the number of prisoners is increasing,” she said.
“What is more saddening is the fact that they did not do any crime and yet they are in prison. It has been three years that they are in jail. At their age they should have been enjoying their retirement,” she said.
Meanwhile, Perez hopes that one day their plea will be heard by the government. “I hope our government will pay attention to the political prisoners (who are sick and elderly). I also hope that they will be vaccinated,” she said.
But most of all they demand that their loved ones be released.