MANILA: The Philippines’ Department of Justice (DoJ) is taking steps to expedite the release of sick and elderly inmates following reports of an uptick in COVID-19 cases in jails, the president’s office said on Wednesday.
More than 200 inmates have tested positive for the disease since March.
“I heard from (Justice Secretary Menardo) Guevarra himself that they’re expediting the processing of individuals who may qualify for probation and parole to decongest our detention facilities,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said on Wednesday, adding that the DoJ had also approved interim rules for parole and executive clemency.
Executive clemency is granted to those over 65 years of age who have served at least five years of their sentence, or those whose continued imprisonment is certified to be inimical to their health.
The Philippines has the most congested penal system in the world, with a jail population of more than 215,000 as of November 2019, occupying space intended for a maximum capacity of 40,000, based on data from World Prison Brief.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that the 467 jails nationwide were at 534 percent capacity in March.
Bureau of Corrections records indicate that the congestion rate in its 125 prisons was 310 percent in January.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday said the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) had identified the elderly prisoners who qualify for the initiative.
Accordingly, the BJMP said out of 3,384 elderly inmates who are above 60 years of age and charged with light offenses, 1,927 have pre-existing medical conditions, while 804 others may or may not qualify for early release.
Additionally, to prevent the spread of the disease, the BJMP has declared a total lockdown on all of its 464 jail facilities, identified 222 isolation areas and established four regional isolation centers.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday said: “Authorities should investigate prison deaths and take urgent measures to protect prisoners, including by reducing prison populations to allow for social distancing and other prevention measures.”
HRW added that the government has not fully reported prison deaths, raising concerns that COVID-19 is spreading more quickly and widely in the country’s detention facilities.
Citing separate interviews with five inmates, HRW said: “Since March 25, at least seven inmates had died in the Quezon City jail and one in the Cavite provincial jail.”
But the watchdog said it could not determine whether the deaths were related to COVID-19 due to the absence of testing kits at the facilities and the government’s failure to report them.