More than 131,000 Filipinos woke up this morning in cramped conditions behind bars. In polite language, these are persons deprived of liberty (PDLs), languishing in the country’s 477 jails. They are not all criminals. According to a Commission on Audit report, 89 percent of PDLs are undergoing or awaiting trial, or awaiting final judgment. The delay in court decisions contributes to the rise in PDL population.
This slow action from the courts is caused by the “lack of judges, postponement of hearings, and slow disposition of criminal cases that carry the penalty of reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment,” the state auditor said.
“Likewise, qualified detainees who are from below the poverty line and cannot afford to post bail have to remain in jail,” COA said.
Pre-trial prisoners should be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law, and special privileges should be provided to them, reflecting their non-convicted status, according to international law.
That’s not the case in our prison system. More than 116,000 pre-trial inmates are competing for jail space with convicted criminals. In its 2022 audit report on the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), COA noted that the average congestion rate in prison facilities is 367 percent, which creates inhumane conditions for PDLs.
BJMP personnel could hardly cope with the current overcrowding in prisons that leads to deteriorating living conditions for inmates. Republic Act 10575 provides that the custodial ratio (or ratio of jail personnel to PDLs) should be one to seven. But now it hovers around one to 100 or more. The level of overcrowding is so acute that prisoners are forced to sleep in shifts, sleep on top of each other, or tie themselves to window bars so that they can sleep while standing.
The good news is that the Marcos administration, in cooperation with the Supreme Court and various stakeholders, is spearheading a jail decongestion summit to come up with comprehensive analysis of the country’s penal system and address the prison congestion problem.
Justice Assistance Secretary Jose Dominic Clavano said among those who will join the December 6 to 7 summit are representatives from the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Department of Justice (DOJ), Supreme Court, and other stakeholders.
From penalreform.org: “Overcrowding is a consequence of criminal justice policy not of rising crime rates, and undermines the ability of prison systems to meet basic human needs, such as health care, food, and accommodation. It also compromises the provision and effectiveness of rehabilitation programs, educational and vocational training, and recreational activities. The excessive use of pre-trial detention, and the use of prison for minor, petty offenses are critical drivers of prison population rates.”
The country’s overcrowded prisons shine a harsh light on the government’s failure to address the problem for decades. We commend the Marcos administration for organizing a jail decongestion summit that, hopefully, will finally address the prison congestion problem.
However, if we want a solution with a huge and immediate impact, we should stop the excessive use of pre-trial detention. The COA report said 89 percent of PDLs are undergoing or awaiting trial. This means more than 116,000 Filipinos are in jail because they don’t have enough money to post bail. If we can’t increase the prison system’s capacity, let’s reduce the high rates of pre-trial detention by improving access to justice.
The prison system should serve to both punish and rehabilitate people who end up in jail. The United Nations said penitentiaries around the globe are striving to effect change by providing inmates with opportunities during their sentence, so that they can more easily be reintegrated into society and become, once again, active members of their communities. If we succeed in decongesting our overcrowded prisons, there’s a better chance for us to rehabilitate our PDLs. Sadly, the prevailing situation dehumanizes incarcerated Filipinos.
“The king will accept into the kingdom those who visited the imprisoned” (Matthew 25:36). God wants our lives to overflow with mercy, love, and compassion—the marks of His kingdom. How we treat the marginalized and powerless is what matters to God, and prisoners were seen as “the least” among those in society. The least we can do is to respect the dignity of our PDLs. Prison decongestion opens the door for rehabilitation, which is the best way to ensure that when PDLs leave prison, they don’t come back.