By Joseph Clyde Famularcano 

Change is coming. When Former President Rodrigo Duterte uttered those words, it reverberated all over the country, even reaching the deepest corner of every jail facility, which are now overcrowded upon the relentless war on drug and criminality by his administration.

According to the Commission on Audit's 2021 Consolidated Annual Audit Report on the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, 337 or 71% of its 474 jail facilities nationwide are congested. Occupancy rates, the ratio of inmates to the ideal jail space, range from 101 to 2,796 percent. These alarming figures show congestion as the leading challenge that prisons in many parts of the Philippines are facing.

Region IV-A has the highest congestion rate with 23 to 2,696 percent and holds 61 congested jails, while its very own San Mateo Municipal Jail - Male Dormitory emerged as the most overcrowded jail. The National Capital Region has the highest jail population with 27,507 inmates to a 7,547 capacity. 

From 115,336 in 2020, the nationwide jail population hiked to 125,247 in 2021, demonstrating an 8.68 percent increase.

The Cause

In a 2014 opinion piece for Inquirer, Neal H. Cruz noted that if there was a Guinness World Records category for the slowest judicial system, the Philippines would come out on top. This can be exemplified through Rogelio Reyes, an unconvicted detainee at Manila City Jail since 2004, charged with layer upon layer of cases. In Al Jazeera's Karishma Vyas' 2018 article about Manila City Jail, she wrote, "At the pace the court is working, he [Reyes] could die in jail before they process all the cases," an outlook of the country's clogged justice system that is arguably the main reason why prisons are packed.

“The jail’s over occupancy had been attributed mainly to the slow or no action by courts on the pending cases due to lack of judges, postponement of hearings, and the slow disposition of criminal cases that carry the penalty of reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment,” state auditors wrote.

Based on the record of the BJMP Directorate of Operations; PDLs who are awaiting or undergoing trial and awaiting final judgment make up 90 percent of the total number or roughly 113,144. Another contributing factor is poverty; some detainees who are eligible for bail cannot afford to post it, causing them to remain in custody. 

Moreover, unfinished perimeter fences and absence of electricity and water connection leads to the delayed transfer of inmates. The said negligence by the government adds up to the many reasons in the sardine-like life behind bars. It also doesn't help that there is no budget allocation to tie these loose ends. Building new facilities has also been hindered by limited spaces and non-availability of lot. 
The Effect

In April 2022, over 1,000 PDLs in the male dormitory of the Manila City Jail were infected with pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), an infectious disease that results in lung complications, and if left untreated, death. TB has been very common amongst jail facilities. This comes to the point that a reported 200 pulmonary tuberculosis cases inside the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City is the "usual" number, as per a spokesperson of the Bureau of Corrections. 

In the middle of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, persons deprived of liberty are put at risk as social distancing becomes impossible inside. Calls to decongest prisons by releasing PDLs that are vulnerable to the virus became louder as several jail facilities report cases of COVID-19, from personnels to inmates. Also, in June 2021, a 75 year old political prisoner reportedly died after displaying signs of critical illness. It is unclear whether the former was tested for COVID.

In accordance with the BJMP Manual's 4.7 square meters ideal habitable floor area per inmate, the ideal cell area for the jail population of 125,347 is 589,131 square meters; contrary to  the Bureau's actual total cell area of 202,724 square meters. This means that 28 inmates are occupying every 4.7 square meters that is intended for 1 inmate only. PDLs experience unhealthy living arrangements, like poor ventilation, food shortage, unhygienic facilities and poor sanitation conditions, therefore failing to meet the United Nations Minimum Standard Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Moreover, the formation of gangs inside prison can also be attributed to the poor living conditions brought upon by overcrowded cells. Inmates turn to each other and create "pangkat" or gangs in order to survive the tumultuous arena behind bars.

The Action

The jail authority took steps to resolve the congestion problem through its "Oplan Decongestion" Program effort, wherein 61,986 PDLs were released at the end of 2021. It also tapped its Paralegal Program to continuously coordinate with courts, plus the implementation of new Supreme Court guidelines regarding PDLs following the declaration of Public Health Emergency.

It has also implored legal remedies under the Constitution such as the Good Conduct Time Allowance Law, which then would allow PDLs with good conduct credits to have their sentences reduced. The GCTA Law came under fire in 2019 after the wife of an inmate came forward, narrating her experience of a BuCor employee asking her P50,000 in exchange for her husband's early release. On the other hand, the Recognizance Act of 2012 gives impoverished inmates, who cannot post bail, temporary liberty, under a custodian that the law deems qualified. 

BJMP has also implemented solutions such as the construction or expansion of existing jail facilities and coordination with LGUs for possible lot donation in order to bridge the gap between the number of facilities and the number of inmates. 

Getting deprived of liberty is a punishment, but suffering in an overcrowded cell is hell. The deeply rooted clogged judicial system, poverty and slow government circulation took center stage in placing PDLs in circumstances that are inhumane. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has promised to continue his predecessor's campaign against drug and criminality; and unless genuine penal reform is prioritized, the situation in jail facilities will continue to be tighter.