MANILA: The Philippines has released over 15,000 inmates to ease congestion in its notoriously overcrowded jails and halt the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), officials announced on Thursday.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said the move proved that prisoners were not being neglected by the government, as the country scrambles to contain its COVID-19 outbreak.
“It also shows that the justice system in the country is working even during the pandemic,” he said, countering claims by leftist groups that the government was not doing enough to decongest the country’s jails.
Based on data released by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), a total of 15,322 inmates were released from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) facilities between March 17 — a day after President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire island of Luzon in lockdown — and June 22.
A total of 5,910 of the freed inmates were from the National Capital Region; 2,598 from other parts of Luzon; 1,487 from Central Visayas; 897 from the Zamboanga Peninsula; 762 from Northern Mindanao, and the rest from other regions.
The DILG pointed out that the majority of those released were elderly, or who had committed light or bailable offenses.
“All of these (inmates) were released by (the) authority of the courts, with some released in accordance with new guidelines issued by the Supreme Court because of the pandemic,” Año stressed.
To date, the BJMP has recorded 783 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, and 135 among its personnel. Año added that 549 of the infected inmates and 90 from the COVID-19 positive jail personnel have already recovered.
Despite budgetary and personnel limitations at the BJMP, he said, the bureau had established COVID-19 isolation centers for inmates.
The bureau also intensified its triaging process, provision of more focused medical care to patients, daily disinfection of jails, targeted and expanded testing, and health education campaigns.
“These are on top of the usual precautionary measures such as wearing of face masks, thermal scanning, use of foot baths, hand washing, and maintaining good hygiene,” Año said.
“We are closely monitoring the situation at BJMP jails across the country and we are not neglecting the COVID-19 positive cases ... We will not stop until all of them have recovered.”
Because physical distancing is a challenge inside jails, Año said that the BJMP also expanded its “virtual visitation” (e-Visitation) program for its inmates while jails remained in lockdown.
The Philippines has the most congested penal system in the world, with a total 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 reported that the 467 jails nationwide were at 534 percent capacity in March 2020.