Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Filipinos society has left behind

It comes and goes yearly—the National Correctional Awareness Week—without the Congress and the Executive announcing a new initiative to reform the penal system and give thousands of inmates a second chance in life.
Thousands of Filipinos congest city and municipal jails, provincial prisons and the national penitentiary and its satellites in the regions. The population thickens daily owing to growing crimes, the harshness of the anti-drug law, the absence of alternatives to imprisonment and lapses in the criminal justice system.

Most inmates suffer squalid conditions. They crowd jails that were built decades ago to house a limited population but have not been expanded or rebuilt to accommodate the fast-growing newcomers. In many prisons in the big cities, including those in metropolitan Manila, prisoners have to take turns sleeping. Congestion in local jails has erupted in frequent violence.

Overcrowding breeds filth, disease and fetid air. Toilets are dirty and private showers are unheard of. Gang rivalry and custodial neglect are commonplace. When storm Ondoy struck, many of its victims were prisoners who had to survive flooded cells.

Guess how much the government spends daily for prison food; about P40 for three meals a day.

Malnutrition is a scourge in many jails. To make up for the insufficient, unappetizing food, the authorities have allowed families to stay on prison compounds or bring food to their relatives.

Wardens in prisons maintained by the Bureau of Corrections (Bucor), Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), and provincial and national governments say that given the scant budget and failure to upgrade prisons, they have to cope and to improvise.

The Department of Justice which runs Bucor and the Department of the Interior and Local Government which supervises the BJMP, have not done enough to reform jails and improve the plight of the prisoners.

They also have to contend with a stingy Congress which has not produced an advocate for penal reform and a spokesman for the prisoners and their families.

A bright note is the work of the Supreme Court with its “Justice on Wheels” program and the Public
Attorney’s Office (PAO) which seeks prisoners needing help, primarily for their deserved freedom. The SC’s “Justice on Wheels” project has enabled hundreds who are in jail for the wrong reasons or have served their terms to secure their liberty. Both programs deserve recognition and support.

Filipinos who are rightly or wrongly (think of the poor who cannot post bail) in jail deserve better treatment. Those who have violated the law must “pay” for their crime of course, but modern penology focuses on training, education and preparation for a useful life after prisons. Instead, current policy turns them into recidivists.

“A penological monstrosity” was the phrase used by a UN team that visited metro jails in the 1990s. The leaders of the European Union in Manila are aghast over prison conditions. “I am a human being!” protested an inmate in a Nueva Ecija jail, “not an animal!” Prison life in many jails has been described by inmates and penal reformers as a “a living death.”

The Constitution is explicit on state policy for humane penology. Section 19 (2) of the Bill of Rights provides: “The employment of physical, psychological, or degrading punishment against any prisoner or detainee, or the use of substandard or inadequate penal facilities under subhuman conditions, shall be dealt with by law.” The State is a lawbreaker in this instance.

Rehabilitation, not retribution, is necessary to humanize our prisons. Prisoners deserve support and care from the government, the Church, business and civil society. They are being left out of the system and mainstream. They are the Filipinos society has left behind.

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