Filipino PDLs need a ‘Prisoner’s Friend’

Winston Churchill was a British statesman, military officer and writer who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945—during the Second World War—and again from 1951 to 1955. He became an ardent advocate for criminal justice reform after his experience as a prisoner of war during the Boer War. Churchill’s passion for prison reform earned him the moniker “Prisoner’s Friend.”

As one of the leading criminal justice reformers in the 20th century, his efforts to reform the penal system reflect concerns that are familiar to us today. Churchill told the British Parliament: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.”

A BusinessMirror columnist recently tried to create greater public awareness of the Philippine prison system today by painting a picture of the alarming congestion rate of our jails. Sen. Sonny Angara wrote: During the public hearing on the 2022 budgets of the Department of Justice and its attached agencies, the Senate was updated on the alarming congestion rate of our jails and penal institutions. For one, the New Bilibid Prison, our national penitentiary, has a congestion rate of 344 percent. In exact figures, this means that Bilibid currently houses 28,545 persons deprived of liberty (PDLs), which greatly exceeds its ideal capacity of 6,435. The same can be said for the rest of the Bureau of Corrections’ managed prisons since the average congestion rate for all seven operating prisons and penal farms, including the NBP, is already at 303 percent.” (Read, Decongesting Philippine prisons, in the BusinessMirror, October 28, 2021).

The senator added: “The state of our PDLs in district, city and municipal jails is also problematic. Based on the 2021 data submitted by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, the congestion rate of its jails is at 397 percent. While this is a significant reduction from the 612 percent congestion rate in 2017, one could still imagine the deplorable conditions our inmates have to endure.” 

According to The World Prison Brief, 75.1 percent of incarcerations within the Philippines’ incarceration system are pre-trial. In 2018, it said 141,422 of 188,278 prisoners were pre-trial detainees. Unfortunately, many people are serving sentences without conviction. Pre-trial detention is found in judicial systems all over the world. In countries like the Philippines, people may serve time that outweighs their crimes. On average, prisoners in the Philippines are detained for nine months without being sentenced.

During the Senate hearing, many senators offered suggestions on ways to decongest our jails—one of which was ensuring the timely release by the BuCor of the carpeta or the records of an inmate eligible for parole to the Board of Pardons and Parole. Senator Angara said: “The BPP said they have the capacity to review at least 1,000 petitions or recommendations in one month and facilitate the release of about 300 to 500 inmates during the same period. However, the carpetas are only forwarded to the Board one to three years after the inmate has served his minimum sentence.”

From a news report: “The Netherlands has closed 23 prisons since 2004 because they don’t have enough criminals to fill them.As judges tend to rely on less severe penalties such as fines, electronic tagging or community service, it is quite rare for convicts in the Netherlands to face lengthy jail time. Furthermore, the Dutch punitive system generally favors rehabilitation over punishment and considerably less criminals reoffend after serving their sentences than in other countries.”

There are global best practices that can help the Philippines reform its penal system. As Senator Angara revealed, there’s an urgent need to improve the inhuman prison conditions our PDLs wrongfully endure.

He said: “While we recognize that these people have committed crimes against man and country, we must also affirm that there is still hope for these people to be reformed and corrected through our justice system. Hence, where these PDLs serve their time must also reflect the aspiration of the country for them to be rehabilitated and be better citizens.”

It’s our duty as citizens to see to it that our PDLs are treated like human beings. In the coming polls, let’s look for candidates sincerely advocating prison reforms. We need to find a leader with compassion, one who can see PDLs as human beings similar to us, and then act to alleviate their suffering. Our PDLs need a crusader that can fight for decent prisons; one who can help decongest jails and prevent overstaying of PDLs.

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