PHILIPPINES: Prisons should not be the 'dungeons' that they have become
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) welcomes the report that Ms Leila De Lima, secretary of the Department of Justice (DoJ), has "pointed on the importance of having a unified penitentiary system." The current structure of the prison system is under the authority of two government departments, the DoJ and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG); and the Local Governments Units (LGUs) in cities, municipalities and provinces where a prison is located.
The AHRC's sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Center (ALRC), has already identified in its April 2009 Alternative report submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture on the Situation of torture, that the poorly organized system of prisons in the country has perpetually put prisoners at serious risk of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. The structure of dividing the operation and supervision of prisons had diminished accountability on the government in protecting and rehabilitating prisoners.
The ALRC's report has discovered that one of the many problems is the lack of effective recording and documentation to account for prisoner's wellbeing, their conditions inside the jail, and the status of their cases in court. The current practice of the prison system has rather excused the DoJ, the DILG and LGUs of any responsibility of their fundamental role: to keep records of persons in their custody whose liberty are deprived. The absence of centralized recording has been difficult for prisoners and their families to know the status of their court cases, when is their prison term ending, and how could their family locate them once they are transferred from one prison to another, amongst others.
In the excerpt of its report below, the ALRC found that the division of prison supervision by the DoJ, the DILG and the LGUs have been problematic; and has already resulted in serious problems affecting the welfare of prisoners. This complicated prison system management also poses serious threats to the community where these prisons are located. For example, city jails, municipal jail and provincials, these are prisons that are maintained by the LGUs; however, their capability in securing the prison and the community where it is located depends on the availability of their local resources, funding and political leadership. Their efficiency varies from one LGU to another.
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."9 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."10 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 fund 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.
The report further recommends for the government to:
5. An effective and centralized register of detainees must be developed and maintained, including those persons detained by the various national or local authorities (the Department of Justice (DOJ), which has jurisdiction over jails under the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor); the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), which has supervisory power over the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), which has jurisdiction over city and municipal detention facilities; and the provincial governments, which have supervisory jurisdiction over the provincial jails in their respective provinces, even though they are also under BJMP);
While the details of the DoJ's proposal is yet to be discussed in public; nevertheless, the AHRC strongly recommends that it must consider as a priority to have a centralized and effective record keeping in prisons. The lack of proper recording, like when is the prisoner's jail term ends, has already resulted to prisoners being held arbitrarily beyond their prison terms. Some had experience that they did not know that they should have been released longer before. This is common to prisoners who do not have anyone following up their cases, status of their detention and their condition inside the jail. Prisoners who died in prison had their bodies left in prison morgues to rot. They are buried without their family knowing about their death. No one could claim their bodies to give them proper burial because the prison authorities had no contact of their families and the latter also do not know where their loved ones are detained once they are transferred to another jail. This practice has made deaths in custody a norm without question.
When a prisoner dies under suspicious circumstances, it is extremely difficult to have his death thoroughly investigated. The family could not know the real circumstances of their loved one's death. But the prison authority could conveniently get away from any responsibility to any deaths of prisoners in their custody. The lack of proper recording has been a convenient excuse by prison officials to enjoy a certain level of impunity. Cover-up of suspicious deaths in custody has been a common practice. Prisoner dies without anyone knowing the real circumstances of his death. Their existence inside the prison disappears without trace.
In the Philippines, whether a prisoner is innocent or not is a taboo. In Filipino society to have a member of a family imprisoned is a problem. It is a combination of feeling of shame, fear of isolation from society and of financial inability by the prisoner's family to regularly visit him in jail that causes separation and loss of contact. Prisoners who are experiencing this condition--common to most of them--should have been given attention and adequate assistance by the prison authorities. They are the ones who are vulnerable to abuse, torture and neglect.
The prison in the country has become a dungeon, an isolation cell and a place where prisoners had to learn how to survive. They are trapped in an environment where not even an iota of their supposed rehabilitation and reintegration to the society ever existed. The prison system itself--structurally and systemically--dehumanizes the prisoners. It is a mockery of the government's responsibility to rehabilitate law offenders while in prison; and to prepare for their reintegration after completing their jail terms; or, being declared by the court as innocent. The prison has rather become a frightening place and a place to escape from, not for rehabilitation of lawbreakers.