THE heads of the three branches of the government—the judiciary, the executive and the legislative – and other stakeholders have come together in a bid to resolve the problem of overcrowding in prison and jail facilities in the country.
At Wednesday’s opening of the two-day National Jail Congestion Summit, Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo stressed that solving the problem of prison and jail congestion would need the cooperation of all branches of the government.
The summit is an initiative of the Justice Sector Coordinating Council composed of the Supreme Court as represented by CJ Gesmundo, Department of Justice (DOJ) represented by Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla and the Department of Interior and Local Government represented by Secretary Benjamin Abalos Jr.
“The problem of congestion has been building up over the years. As our population increases, as more laws are passed, as the enforcement of our laws become more efficient, as prosecutions result to more convictions, and as judgments are more quickly handed down, the increase in the number of prisoners is only expected,” the chief justice pointed out in his speech at the summit.
“Without a corresponding expansion of our jail facilities, congestion would naturally result,” he added.
At the end of the summit, the JSCC will lay out a plan of action for addressing congestion, Gesmundo said.
Based on data, 70 percent of detention facilities under the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) are overcrowded at an average congestion rate of 386 percent. In some jails, the occupancy rate has gone as high as 2,748 percent of their standard facility.
Likewise, prison facilities under the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) remain overcrowded despite efforts to hasten the release of thousands of persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) through the grant of pardon, parole, due to humanitarian reasons or good conduct.
At the New Bilibid Prisons (NBP) in Muntinlupa City alone, there are 29,442 convicted prisoners as of November 2023, despite the fact that it can only accommodate more than 6,000 prisoners, or a 358 percent congestion rate.
The six other prison facilities under the BuCor—Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong City, Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan; Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm in Occidental Mindoro; San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm in Zamboanga City; Leyte, Regional Prison in Abuyog, Leyte; and Davao Prison and Penal Farm in Panabo, Davao Province—have a total of 51,862 PDLs, despite having a total capacity of only 12,000 PDLs.
“With excessively overcrowded jails, PDLs live under extremely challenging conditions that hinder their reformation—but hopefully not for much longer,” the chief justice said.
Marcos Jr. backing
Meanwhile, in his speech delivered by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. welcomed the holding of the summit, which he said was in line with his administration’s priority to decongest prison and jail facilities and to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of court justice system.
Marcos Jr. stressed that addressing jail congestion would require a whole-of-government approach “to ensure the efficient, effective, and compassionate administration of justice in the country.”
“I am, therefore, confident that the discussions in this summit will pave the way for better policies and initiatives that will address the root causes of our problems,” he said.
The president said the adoption of digitalization and streamlining of processes will play a crucial role for jail decongestion.
“By embracing technology and innovative practices, we can enhance our efficiency, reduce delays, and ensure swift and fair legal proceedings,” the chief executive said in his message delivered by Executive Secretary Lucas P. Bersamin.
The chief executive said the measure will help improve the efficiency of the country’s court system and reduce the number of persons deprived of liberty (PDL).
Marcos also hopes the event will allow the country to adopt the best justice system practices of other countries.
Among the proposed measures is for the granting of presidential pardon or executive clemency to qualified PDLs.
Zubiri: Important step
On the other hand, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said the summit “is an important step in recognizing a basic but often overlooked truth: that fundamental human rights apply to every Filipino, including our PDLs—no matter the crime, no matter the sentence.”
He noted that overcrowding of jails has exposed PDLs to violence and disease as proven during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Prison and jail congestion, according to Zubiri, also leaves correction officers and workers overworked and overburdened, which keeps them away from attending to the rehabilitation needs of each PDL under their care and supervision.
“Instead of having an effective correctional system that can rehabilitate our PDLs and help them rejoin society as productive individuals, we are instead cultivating an atmosphere for recidivism, with repeat offenders, falling into the correctional system all over again,” Zubiri said in his speech.
For his part, House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez viewed jail congestion as not merely a logistical or infrastructural problem but a human rights issue.
“The overcrowded conditions in our detention facilities reflect upon the state of our judicial processes and the very essence of justice and humanity in our society,” Romualdez said in his speech.
He added that the summit symbolizes a unified approach in dealing with complex challenges pertaining to jail congestion while respecting the autonomy of each branch of the government.
The House Speaker traced the roots of the congestion problem to prolonged processes and inadequate infrastructure, which he said calls for an immediate and decision action from all stakeholders.
In his speech delivered by DOJ Undersecretary Raul Vasquez, Remulla stressed that the problem of overcrowding violates the basic human rights of PDLs.
“I am confident that the collective efforts and outputs of this Summit will have a profound impact on the lives of those that we serve as crucial actors of the country’s criminal justice system,” he said.
On the part of the judiciary, CJ Gesmundo said short and long-term activities to address overcrowding of correction facilities would fall under three modes which include reducing admission, increasing releases and expanding jail facilities and capacities.
He stressed that success in decongesting jails would depend on close cooperation, coordination and cooperation among the five pillars of the criminal justice system—law enforcement, prosecution, the courts, corrections and the community.
“The efficiency and efficacy of any criminal justice system is measured not by how many are prosecuted and incarcerated, but rather by how many are reformed and rehabilitated,” the Chief Justice stressed.
Meanwhile, Zubiri pushed for the full implementation of Republic Act No. 11928 or the Separate Facility for Heinous Crimes Act, which establishes at least three supermax prisons for high-level offenders, one in Luzon, another in Visayas, and another one in Mindanao.
Zubiri believes the supermax facilities would reduce opportunities for organized crime within the country’s prison system.
The Senate president also vowed to help the DOJ improve existing facilities, including the plan to relocate the NBP complex and establish more penal facilities across the country.
Romualdez said the House would carefully study several proposals from stakeholders to address the congestion problem.
These include the comprehensive review of the classification of crimes as “capital” and “non-bailable.”
The review, he said, will assess the deterrent effect of the said classifications and consider the decriminalization of certain offenses such as libel, abortion, and dueling.
Also up for review is the enactment of a law that would also extend diversionary measures to adult offenders, not only to children in conflict with the law.