A national shame

Not only the alleged involvement of government officials in it is among the fallouts in the investigation of — and hopefully the prosecution and punishment of those responsible for — the murder of broadcaster and online journalist Percy Lapid (Percival Mabasa). It is also its reminding the public and the rest of the world of one of the best-kept, but nevertheless well-known secrets in this country: the dismal and shameful state of its prisons.

That seeming contradiction is based on every administration’s pretense that everything is as it should be in them, despite most Filipinos’ knowledge that it is not. Even those who have had only minimal contact with Philippine prisons know how congested, filthy, and dangerous for most inmates they are.

Also well-known is that uniquely oxymoronic Philippine penology invention, the “living out prisoner,” a felon who is usually monied and well-connected enough to gain the privilege of continuing to live the life to which he is accustomed outside prison walls despite his criminal conviction, while his poorer counterparts, and even those still awaiting trial, rot in their overcrowded cells. And who can forget the scandalous pardons of even the most vicious but equally well-connected thieves and murderers during the Duterte regime?

As afoul of justice as all those instances are, however, the more recent reports in the media have provided even more details on what those hells on earth for poorer inmates, but staycation cottages for the monied, are like.

The New Bilibid Prison (NBP) is supposed to be some kind of Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) showcase. But a police search of it the other week found thousands of cans of beer and hundreds of cell phones and laptops, as well as knives and improvised weapons among other prohibited items.

Even more disturbing is the discovery that the unclaimed remains of about 178 convicts have been in storage in the NBP-accredited funeral parlor, whose causes of death are, at best, so uncertain some of them will have to be autopsied.

The news media have also reported government plans to build a P4 billion “super max prison” for those convicted of such offenses as murder, rape, and other vile crimes. It is presumably in recognition of the need to decongest the NBP, where more than 30,000 prisoners — a conservative estimate — are being held in a facility built for only 6,000 inmates. But the purpose of the new facility, it seems, is to separate the worst inmates from those guilty of lesser transgressions.

The huge numbers of contraband items that have been smuggled into the NBP is an indictment not just of its guards who are in direct contact with the inmates, but also of its past and perhaps even present officials. It suggests the existence of a vast conspiracy between convicts so privileged they have managed to get beer, weapons, and electronic devices into the prison, and NBP personnel from guards to administrators.

One can surmise that the collusion between them is a lucrative “business arrangement” in which the profits from the sale of, say, a can of beer for P1,000 is divided among them. But it is also one more indication of how much corruption has enriched some government officials, and, in this instance, how their crimes could have contributed to the number of deaths that annually plague not only the NBP but also the country’s other prisons.

The suspicious deaths of such high-profile prisoners in the country’s prisons as that of Mayor Rolando Espinosa of Albuera, Leyte are well known. But it seems that even the relatively unknown — among them eight convicts allegedly “neutralized” by a band of 22 policemen in 2020 on the orders of someone yet to be named — could suffer the same fate on prison premises. There is also the killing of the alleged “middleman” between the killer(s) of Lapid and the mastermind(s) whom forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun found was asphyxiated with a plastic bag. In addition are the large numbers of deaths, supposedly from “natural causes,” of hundreds of anonymous inmates, which, at 507 in 2019, then-Justice Secretary Medardo Guevara dismissed as “normal.”

Just how “normal” they are is indicated by the findings of Inquirer journalists Dexter Cabalza and Tina Santos. From 507 deaths in 2019, they reported that the numbers had risen to 887 in 2020, all, with a few exceptions, supposedly from such “natural causes” as cardiopulmonary arrest and heart attacks. The steep increase in the numbers alone — some 40% — should have been suspicious enough to provoke an inquiry, but did not. It was instead ignored, and seemingly concealed, which by itself alone suggests that something was not right. Additionally, those deaths also provoke the question of whether the NBP provides adequate healthcare for its inmates.

Equally evident is how the class divide between the more affluent and well-connected and the poor and powerless in Philippine society is replicated even within the penal system. What is likely is that, in the context of the culture of corruption in both government and Philippine society, the same situation between prison “haves” and “have nots” and the latter’s engaging guards and officials in another “business arrangement” will still obtain in the P4 billion “super max prison” the Marcos administration wants to build. There is also the near-certain guarantee that the same congestion and the difficulties of visitations that the relatives of those imprisoned are currently experiencing because of the latter’s concentration in one facility in the National Capital Region (NCR) will be replicated.

What is needed, among others, is the decentralization of the prison system through the construction of smaller regional jails that can be better managed, and which would be more accessible to the prisoners’ kin. Even convicted felons still have rights, and this has been emphasized by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and other international protocols. The UN has called the Philippines’ attention a number of times to violations of those Rules, among them the denial of visitation rights and the imprisonment of juvenile offenders with adult criminals in most of the country’s prisons.

Implicit in the name of the Bureau of Corrections is the assumption that the mandate of the penal system is to reform and rehabilitate those citizens who have committed crimes to enable them to rejoin society as responsible and productive citizens. But the scandals, violence, and corruption that have rocked it for decades are hardly what the system encourages. In addition is its serving as a training ground for future criminals by mixing juvenile offenders with hardened felons, and their consequent recruitment into the gangs that are often involved in the killings and the riots in NBP and other facilities.

The picture that emerges overall is that of a system that needs the most drastic reforms, beginning with the decongestion of the prisons across the archipelago, and the separation of juveniles from the adults in them. That picture, however, also says something about how little this country values human rights and lives, and the extent and lethal consequences of the corruption that has metastasized throughout Philippine society.

As Britain’s World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill, himself a prison reformer who viewed societies as either barbaric or civilized, once declared, “Show me your prisons and I shall say in which society you live.” What the hellholes we call prisons (that the government disingenuously names “correction facilities”) say about Philippine society and culture is more than enough cause for national shame.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
November 17, 2022

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