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Inmates sitting in an overcrowded jail in Manila, Philippines, February 2019.  © 2019 Kyodo via AP Images

(Manila) – The Philippine government has not fully reported prison deaths, raising concerns that Covid-19 is spreading more quickly and widely in the country’s detention facilities, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should investigate prison deaths and take urgent measures to better protect prisoners, including by reducing prison populations to allow for social distancing and other prevention measures.

Five inmates interviewed separately told Human Rights Watch recently that since March 25, 2020, at least seven inmates have died in the Quezon City Jail and one in the Cavite Provincial Jail. Human Rights Watch could not determine whether the deaths were Covid-19 related because of the absence of testing in the facilities and the government’s failure to report them. A criminal justice expert and a nongovernmental monitoring group believe more deaths have occurred in the country’s prisons and jails than the government has disclosed publicly.

“Unreported deaths of inmates show the urgent need for the Duterte government to be transparent about the spread of Covid-19 inside the country’s overcrowded prisons,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should get serious about the terrible situation in its prisons and jails and accurately report on prison deaths and illness.”

The Philippine government has reported that only two inmates have died from Covid-19 – one at the New Bilibid prison in Muntinlupa City and the other at the Quezon City Jail, both in Metro Manila. The Bureau of Corrections and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology publicly stated that nearly 250 inmates in various prisons and jails have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Several inmates at the Quezon City Jail told Human Rights Watch by telephone that possible Covid-19 cases at the facility appear to be increasing. “We have at least one death a week since the outbreak, which is higher than usual,” said an inmate with duties as a “medical aide” inside the overcrowded jail. Another medical aide and other inmates corroborated this account.

An inmate in the Cavite Provincial Jail told Human Rights Watch that a Nigerian man in his 40s died during the first week of April. He said the man later was found to have had Covid-19. A medical staff member in the warden’s office confirmed the death, but provided no other details except that the warden “has already reported it to the governor and the DILG,” the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

The inmate said four prisoners carried the body out of the jail with little protective medical equipment, a common practice for medical aides. Medical aides fill in for some roles of nurses and doctors inside the jail, such as taking temperatures. These duties have increased as the virus outbreak has stretched the already inadequate number of medical personnel, and because staff consider them safe to mingle with the general prison population.

“We had a mask on and a pair of gloves but that’s it,” a medical aide at the Quezon City Jail said about taking the body to a waiting ambulance for transfer to a morgue. Another detainee said that while the nurses at the Quezon City Jail wore proper protective gear, medical aides only received a face mask and gloves.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that people transferring bodies of those who have died from suspected or confirmed Covid-19 should use protective equipment, including a gown, gloves, face shield, and goggles, or other facial protection.

The inmate said social distancing was impossible inside the jail, prisoners lacked nutritious food, and that only about a quarter of the prisoners were wearing face masks.

“Inmates painted a harrowing picture of health conditions inside the overcrowded jails,” Robertson said. “Failing to give adequate protection to the inmates ordered to help prison medical staff is cruel beyond belief.”

The inmate said that, based on the number of detainees at the Quezon City Jail who have been moved to an isolation ward outside the facility and changes in jail personnel, as many as 20 detainees and 19 jail staff are believed to have been infected as of April 23.

“We pity the old detainees especially because we don’t know where to isolate them,” the inmate said. “Many of them have a hard time breathing, some have fever.” A detainee over 60 years old said, “The prisoners here are pitiful. There’s practically no space for us to sleep properly. Even the plaza outside our cells is occupied. They don’t care about us.”

All the detainees interviewed said their cell leaders handed down explicit instructions not to disclose detainee deaths to relatives, the public, or the media.

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. The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology has reported that the 467 jails nationwide were at 534 percent of capacity in March 2020. Bureau of Corrections records indicate that the congestion rate in its 125 prisons was 310 percent in January.

Human Rights Watch and Philippine human rights groups concerned about outbreaks of Covid-19 in the country’s prisons and jails have urged the government to release prisoners who face charges for low-level, non-violent crimes, including older people and those with underlying medical conditions. The Supreme Court, in response to a petition filed by sick and older prisoners, directed lower courts to expedite such releases. However, the solicitor general, Jose Calida, blocked the petition stating, “While it is true that some of the detention and reformatory facilities in the country are highly congested, unfortunately, congestion in prison facilities is not among the grounds to release inmates.”

“The Philippines is facing a real catastrophe if nothing is done to improve the dire health and overcrowding situation in its jails,” Robertson said. “The government needs to release vulnerable prisoners immediately and ensure that the medical needs of the remaining detainees are met.”



The congestion rate in Philippine jails cited in this news release has been corrected to indicate that the figure was from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, not the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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