This lesson will look at prison conditions in the Philippines. (For a detailed study on prison conditions in three other Asian countries, see HRCS Lesson 31: Prison conditions and complaint mechanisms.)
A. General prison conditions in the Philippines
The Philippines does not have a centralized law or agency regarding the management of prisons, and thus it is difficult to assess prison conditions. Some prisons are managed by civilian authorities, while others by the police and military. There is a lack of accountability in the management.
2.17 The lack of an effective register of detainees: the prison system is poorly organised, with no central, well organised register of detainees, which feeds the problem of torture and impunity for this practice. The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), which is under the Department of Justice (DoJ), is responsible for those “sentenced to serve a term of imprisonment of more than three (3) years.” The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), which is under the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), is responsible for “persons detained awaiting investigation or trial and/or transfer to the national penitentiary.” Further to detention facilities under the (DoJ), the BJMP or the Jail Bureau, “exercise supervision and control over all city and municipal jails” and the respective provincial governments where the provincial jails are located also exercise ‘supervision and control’ and operate autonomously from the DoJ. The operation of city jails, municipal jails and provincial jails, are directly under the supervision and control of the respective local governments. The operation of provincial jails depends solely on the availability of funds of the province. Should a particular province suffer from a lack of budget or resources, resulting in deteriorated detention conditions, the Department of Justice (DoJ) could not intervene as it lacks jurisdiction [ALRC, ‘The situation of torture in the Philippines’, alternative report to the Committee Against Torture, 2009; ALRC-TBR-001-2009].
Other issues that have been spotlighted by documentation and prison visits:
Sanitation and medical treatment
Different prisons and detention centers in the country have had detainees die from tuberculosis, which is shocking; tuberculosis is no longer the dreaded affliction that killed millions in past decades. It has been for many years now an easily treatable disease and the fact that prisoners die of it whilst in custody speaks of the criminal neglect of the prison authorities. In December 2008 Melvic Lupe, a detainee held at the Karangalan Police Station, Cainta, Rizal died from tuberculosis, while the charges filed against him and his fellow workers was pending at the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 80, in Morong, Rizal. The workers were detained on fabricated charges due to protesting against the illegal dismissal of their fellow workers and poor working conditions. There had been needless delays in the conclusion of the case due to the judge taking leave of absence and other factors. A year later, another worker, Leo Paro of Parang, Marikina City, also died of tuberculosis on 24 September 2009 after becoming ill due to poor prison conditions and lack of adequate medical attention. Paro and Lupe were physically fit and did not have these types of illnesses prior to their detention. Despite the death of one of the detainees over a year ago, the following death of Paro illustrates the authorities’ continued failure to improve conditions and prevent similar deaths of the detainees who are under their custody and care.
The cell occupied by these detainees measured some four square meters. Initially more than 20 inmates were occupying the detention cell. All of the detainees had to take it in turns to sleep due to the overcrowding. The detainees' vulnerability to contracting illness inside the jail and the weakening of their bodies was also aggravated by the lack of adequate food and nutrition. Not only is the food scarce, there are occasions when the food ration is served late. And even if visitors bring food for the detainees, the guards would take some portions of the food before it reached them [See AHRC UAC-102-2009, 21 August 2009; UAU-027-2009, 29 September 2009; and AHRC-OLT-027-2009, 7 October 2009].
In May 2005, two inmates died of tuberculosis (TB) disease and heart disease in separate incidents inside the General Santos City Reformatory Center (GSCRC). There have been a number of inmates who contracted or acquired a number of diseases including tuberculosis, severe coughing and high blood pressure. Although the jail authorities are aware of the situation, their response has been poor.
The Department of Interior and Local Government released its findings and evaluation regarding the condition of prisons all over the country on November 2004, and reported the increasing number of inmates in prisons and penitentiaries contracting tuberculosis. Among the causes for the disease to spread are congested prison centers and lack of food. This, however, has not been adequately addressed.
According to the Commission on Human Rights regarding its evaluation of prison conditions in the country report for 2005, Dr. Renante Basas, director of the Commission’s assistance and visitorial office, concluded that the country’s jails and detention centers, including the seven national penitentiaries, have remained below the standard.
Sometime in the first week of December 2005, an 18-year-old inmate, identified as Arthur Esquelona died on his way to the General Santos City Hospital. Esquelona was taken to the hospital by jail officers of the General Santos City Reformatory Center (GSCRC) after he complained of severe stomach pain. According to Supt. Amilbangsa Aming, jail warden of the GSCRC, the victim may have died of an ulcer.
Esquelona had been detained at the GSCRC for awhile. After the victim’s death, his parents, Rodrigo and Rosalinda raised suspicions over the incident. The couple claimed that their son was in good health prior to his detention and when they visited him in October 2005.
According to Rodrigo, his son was found to have a blood clot on his head, which he theorized may have caused his death. They are not convinced that their son died of an ulcer as reported by the jail officers. This prompted them to have their son subjected to an autopsy examination.
In the autopsy report released by Dr. Antonietta Odi, medico-legal officer at the City Integrated Health Services (CIHS), it was found the victim’s body had traces of injuries on the head. Dr. Odi said the victim’s head may have been beaten or thrown into a hard object, which may have caused his death. According to Odi’s opinion, deaths of patients who are suffering from ulcers are completely different from Esquelona [See UA-242-2005, 21 December 2005].
Two more inmates died in the GSCRC custody later in December 2005, Vincent Abella and Mary Jane Mancera. Abella was found dead while in deep sleep, while Mancera died on her way to hospital on December 28 after she suddenly collapsed in the jail. These deaths were not thoroughly investigated, with the police merely recording whatever information is reported to them by the jail authorities, citing constraints of authority and jurisdiction [See UP-01-2006, 2 January 2006].
On 28 July 2005, the AHRC received information of a suspicious death of an inmate who had had serious threats on his life prior to his death. It is reported that on July 12, Joselito Tobi, an inmate who was falsely charged and detained at the provincial jail in Palo, Leyte following the 21 November 2005 vigil held by farmers regarding the distribution of land allegedly died from food poisoning.
Tobi also had criminal complaints pending against the military for the death of nine peasants in Palo, Leyter. Tobi and his fellow inmate, Arniel Dizon, reportedly had received threats two weeks before his death. The AHRC is not aware of any thorough investigation conducted into Tobi’s death. Those responsible of allegedly poisoning Tobi, and threatening him and Dizon remain unknown [For details please see UP-151-2006, 31 July 2006 and UA-216-2005, 21 November 2005].
As the above cases indicate, prison conditions in the Philippines are far from ideal. They do not meet even national standards, let alone international ones. National standards can be found in the Bureau of Corrections Operating Manual, as well as statutory provisions regarding persons in custody, while international human rights standards for prisoners are found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Standard Minimum Rules), Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment (Body of Principles) and the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners (Basic Principles). These can be found in Lesson 1 of Series 31 regarding international standards for prisoners.
B. Making complaints
In most cases, prisoners or detainees do not complain directly to the prison authorities. Although there are guidelines and rules in terms of complaint making, prisoners prefer to inform their relatives, who in turn make complaints to the prison authorities. As for those detainees who do not have relatives to complain to, they usually ask to be included in the complaints of fellow detainees.
Even though it is a third party—relatives or others—making complaints to the prison officials, there is still caution for the fact that they are directly complaining to the prison officials who have power and authority where the complaining detainees are held. Once the prison officials come to know of the complaint, the relevant prisoners are targeted, not physically, but in a variety of methods. They are not given sufficient food for instance, are subject to solitary confinement or isolated from other detainees, and are denied the privilege of roaming about the jail compound.
In the worst scenario, the detainees are prevented from going out of their overly congested cells, due to being considered a “security risk”; the act of complaining itself is interpreted as the detainees threatening the security of the entire detention facility. In this case, hardly any progress will be made regarding the complaints.
In detention centers where all prisoners are held together, whether pre-trial, ongoing trial or convicted, prisoners are themselves becoming de facto prison officers due to the lack of resources and inadequate number of prison officers. To obtain such a privilege, prisoners must impress upon the prison officials and guards that they are actually working for them, submitting to their authority without question.
Once a prisoner becomes a de facto prison guard, he/she will get the privilege of even holding keys to prison cells, registering visitors and working in the canteens that are funded and owned by the prison officials and guards, which is in fact illegal under the prison guidelines.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) and the Courts who have jurisdiction over particular detention facilities have the power and authority to conduct jail visits unannounced to ensure the detainees are well treated and the administration is running smoothly. Unfortunately, such visits are hardly ever conducted. The PAO also has the additional legal obligation to discuss with the detainees and inform them of the progress of their case. In practice however, the detainees are only informed by letter or when they are taken to court for their hearings. In other words, the detainees only have a chance to talk to their lawyer when they appear in court for trial.
There are many Civil Service Laws and other laws regarding complaints against prison officials in performance of their duties. They can be charged for administrative or criminal offences once they are found to be committing violations in performance of their duties. Hardly any prisoners take this course however. As mentioned above, it is not practical to file a complaint against the prison officials who have authority and power over the detention facilities where one is held. There is hardly any protection afforded to complainants or witnesses to crimes in the Philippines, so what can prisoners expect?
As a result, prisoners tend to organize themselves collectively inside the detention centers for their own protection. Some join gangs, religious groups and many others who could help them in times of need. There are many fights and riots amongst prisoners themselves, with many dying. The more ‘connections’ these groups have with prison officials, the more immunity they have for any criminal activities, as well as more privileges and perks inside the detention facilities.
In some detention facilities, prisoners who could no longer bear the abuse and oppression by prison officials, such as corrupting the budget for their food, medical needs and others, may go on hunger strike. There is also anecdotal evidence whereby prisoners were released by prison guards to commit crimes outside, like theft and robberies, or wealthy prisoners were allowed to go outside the detention facilities for their personal errands. Once this was publicized, the prison officials would be sacked, if not moved to other facilities. Such a strategy is thus more effective than making use of the complaint procedure that exists on paper.
Questions For Discussion
1. What do the above cases tell you about prison conditions in the Philippines?
2. Apart from monitoring prison authorities and improving delays in court cases, what other factors could improve the situation faced by detainees?
3. Discuss the difference between formal and informal/de facto complaint procedures to address prisoners’ grievances. What implications do informal complaints have on the legal obligations of prison officials?
4. Discuss starting a campaign to improve prison conditions in your locality.