Government News Analysis

Jails at full stretch

Quezon City Jail
Quezon City Jail

According to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) there are 142,168 individuals presently housed in 466 jails and other facilities across the Philippines. The “ideal combined capacity” for this accommodation is 20,400 inmates. In other words, right now these facilities are seven times overbooked. And clearly, that’s a problem.

However, it’s not a new problem; the country’s penal infrastructure has been inadequate and unfit for purpose for a long time; the fact is it’s been a problem for the best part of half a century. Lack of investment and the absence of any clear forward planning – despite repeated warnings from the BJMP, the Bureau of Corrections and other agencies – has resulted in a mounting legacy problem as successive administrations played ‘follow my leader’ and kicked the can down the road. In short, spending money on building jails and prisons has never been a priority in the Philippines.

Of course, what’s made this issue suddenly headline news over the past year is President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs – his campaign to rid his country of an illegal crystal-meth industry that’s created some 4 million Filipino addicts. We’ve all seen the pictures of sardine-can jails with prisoners sleeping in stair wells as the Western Liberal-driven media uses these images as an example of Duterte’s “inhuman” treatment of his people.

The actual story though is very different – and far bigger than the once-over-lightly caption stories that have played around the world embellishing the anti-Duterte narrative. For what finally choked an already choking jail system was the unpredicted tidal wave of arrests and surrenders that the drugs war spawned. Just like a tsunami it unexpectedly crashed in and flooded the country’s entire penal system instantly.

Starting around July last year this super flood built to a staggering scale and by the end of the year drug surenderees has totalled more than 1 million – to be precise, 1,007,153 by 31 December. By classification, in round numbers, this broke down to 75,000 drug pushers and 930,000 drug users.

Even Nostradamus couldn’t have predicted that. Consequently, the system buckled. It was like sticking an elephant heard on an already overcrowded raft. The problem was – and it’s never mentioned in any reports of the crammed-jails story – there was no where else to put them. Nor was the obvious ever stated – that jails jammed full with addicts and pushers was the price of the drug campaign’s success; that getting all these people off the streets was a large contributory factor to reducing the crime rate by 32%.

Above all else though, the real story was that this was a disaster waiting to happen. In fact it already had happened; it just wasn’t of interest to the media until Duterte came along and kicked the numbers further through the roof.

Back in 2002, one year after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took over as president from Joseph Estrada, there were around 67,968 inmates crammed into facilities that weren’t equipped to cope with half that number; by 2006 that number has jumped to 94,961.Furthermore, 2001 government projections showed that populations in these facilities would grow exponentially throughout Arroyo’s term – 89,000 by 2008; 101,250 by 2009, and 114,930 by 2010. And these forecasts didn’t disappoint; they were in the ballpark. By 2008 they held 94,961 prisoners; 95,390 by 2010; and by 2012 – two years into the presidency of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino – the inmate/detainee population had swelled to 106,322.

And in all that time not a single new jail had been built.

The fact is, similar pictures to the ones we’ve been entreated to over the past year could have been taken back in 2001. Then, in the larger facilities – Manila City Jail (which had a congestion rate of 180% when Estrada was in charge of the country) and those in the National Capital Region, for example – inmates had to take turns sleeping on the floor. Photographs of that never made it into The New York Times or Time magazine, but it doesn’t alter the fact, they were there for the taking if they’d been interested.

It’s also a fact that well before Duterte came on the national stage, the University of London’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research had ranked the Philippine penal system the third most congested in the world after Haiti and Benin – two countries from which the world’s press is not festooning us with prison pictures.

Back in 2006, Ronaldo V. Puno, then secretary of the Interior – the government department responsible for jails and prisons – pushed to improve the penal facilities in Metro Manila and other large cities, but more to expand and upgrade them rather than build new facilities. And if truth be told, very little came of that effort. In 2006, for example, the daily stipend for a prisoner’s food was PHP40. That went up to PHP50 two years later and stayed there throughout the whole of Aquino’s term and remains the same today.

So the coverage we get is not really about the deplorable conditions of the inmates per se; presumably, if that was important this story would have been written a decade and more ago. We suspect that members of The Washington Post Board were blissfully unaware of the situation the imprisoned and the detained were subjected to in the Philippines in all that time.

And why shouldn’t they be? The Philippines wasn’t a story then; it was just a place somewhere near Japan or Australia or somewhere that Washington operated for certain purposes. It only became a story when some rude ruffian from some unpronounceable part of that country oddly became its president and had the effrontery to commit lèse-majesté against their sovereign, Caesar Liberali, US president Barack Obama. Then they got their maps out and sharpened their quills. No need to learn anything about the place; they had their story.

So they told us about the appalling conditions in Quezon City Jail – a Metro Manila facility built for 800 which now houses 3,800 – where a handful of inmates die of illness every month. Whether they’d still be alive if they weren’t in jail they have no way of knowing but one conclusion they won’t draw is that this is a negligible loss of life when compared to the 55 Filipinos who die every single day in the Philippine from water-borne diseases because they have no access to clean water.

Quezon City Jail (photo) – the crown jewel of Duterte-shaming lock-ups as far as the international media are concerned – was built in 1953, one year before war rationing for meat and food ended in the UK; four years before the end of the Suez Crisis. It may serve as a jail but it passed its ‘Best By’ date (if it ever had one) decades ago. And yet this – and even worse dilapidated facilities – is what’s been passed on to Duterte to house the country’s criminals.

What’s he supposed to do, grant them all an amnesty? Put them up in resort hotels in Boracay? Leave them on the drugs-drenched streets to make a living or continue dying? What do these all-caring, all-knowing, all-understanding geniuses that wander professorially around the editorial floors of the Guardian in London, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the like suggest?

Of course, what’s needed is a major construction programme. The Philippines needs bigger and better jails and prisons if it’s going to stand any chance of dealing with these levels of incarceration. Any meaningful degree of successful rehabilitation from the present facilities is impossible. So at best, all they achieve is to grant these inmates sabbatical leave from their jobs in crime.

Certainly, Duterte’s rehab infrastructure scheme will take a great deal of pressure off the system. Last October he signed an executive order mandating that each of the country’s 81 provinces must have at least one drug rehab. Presently, there are just 16 nationwide.

But that still won’t solve the real problem – the one that’s always been there – where to put the country’s murderers and rapists, robbers and kidnappers and other violent offenders and the rank and file of the narcotics trade. The fact is, these numbers just keep going up while jail and prison building remains dormant. It’s like any population problem, if its not addressed it’ll take over.

In 1979, four years after the end of the Vietnam War, 68,700 Vietnamese arrived by sea in Hong Kong. They were fleeting persecution. Like the 1,007,153 drug surenderees that have swamped the system in the Philippines today, they came quickly and unannounced. And they continued to land in a place that’s just 0.9% of the Philippines’ size. In 1989 they were arriving at a rate of 300 a day.

But in the initial stages there’d been no real preparation; no indication of the scale of what to expect. Hong Kong, however, had little choice but to deal with this human wave. And it did so by setting up camps, reception and detention centres – 14 facilities in all – to process and accommodate the arrivals. They weren’t palatial by any means – some were housed in tents, others in a 23-storey factory building in Tuen Mun capable of taking 16,000; the biggest camp, Whitehead held 25,000.

Certainly, the refugees from Vietnam form a very different demographic to the crime-based surrender population of the Philippines – though there was no shortage of criminals among the former. The point is though, the holding camps which Hong Kong established were secure and the local population was kept safe.

In both cases these are big numbers; in both cases those numbers grew quickly. So what the Hong Kong experience shows is that solutions can be found. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention – and when you have a mother of a problem like this you need to get inventive quickly.

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