Inmates in the North Cotabato District Jail in Kidapawan City, Philippines, January 2017.  © 2017 AP Photo

(Manila) – Philippine authorities, to stem the COVID-19 outbreak, should release from the country’s overcrowded jails and prisons inmates who have been detained or convicted for low-level and non-violent offenses, Human Rights Watch said today. They should also consider releasing older prisoners and those with underlying medical conditions who would be at greater risk if they became infected.

The Philippines has the highest jail occupancy rate in the world, exacerbated by the Duterte government’s “war on drugs,” in which hundreds of thousands of people have been jailed since July 2016. Since March 2020, the arrests and temporary detention of thousands of people for violating curfews and quarantine regulations have further crowded police lockups and jails.

“The Philippine government should urgently reduce overcrowding in detention facilities, by releasing minor offenders and prioritizing the release of older prisoners and those with underlying health conditions at particular risk from COVID-19,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Failure to act now could result in a serious outbreak in the country’s jails and prisons, threatening the lives of prisoners whose health the authorities have a duty to protect.”

The combined population in prisons run by the Philippine Bureau of Corrections, where convicted people are incarcerated, and the jails run by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology for those on trial or pre-trial was 215,000 as of November 2019. All these facilities combined have 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. Bureau of Corrections records indicate that the congestion rate in its 125 prisons was 310 percent in January.

Prisoners’ relatives and nongovernmental groups have sought, without success, to obtain the temporary release of sick and older prisoners on humanitarian grounds. One woman told Human Rights Watch that her 62-year-old father was arrested in January during a drug raid, detained at a Metro Manila jail, and is on trial for drug possession. She said he has a weakened immune system and last week had a cold and fever.

“We have written to the jail warden asking to at least transfer my father to a separate facility to allow social distancing, but we have been ignored so far,” she said. “We’re really worried because we know already there’s not enough space in jail for the inmates and now with COVID-19, naturally we’re even more worried.”

Another woman said that her partner, 43, who is detained on drug charges, is particularly vulnerable because he had tuberculosis 10 years ago and never completed the six-month therapy for the disease. He has had a cough and a high fever since March 31. “I and our three children fear for his welfare inside the [Metro Manila] jail,” she said. “He has weak lungs and I was told that several fellow inmates also have high fever and so we’re really scared.”

A political activist, Fides Lim, told Human Rights Watch: “We have been pressing for the immediate release of prisoners with low-level offenses, the elderly, the sick, and the pregnant who are most at risk for severe disease or death if infected with the coronavirus, as well as those already due for parole, and those due for release, which was interrupted by quarantine regulations.”

In addition to the government, the Supreme Court can order a prisoner released on health and humanitarian grounds if a petition is filed with the court, said Raymund Narag, a criminal justice expert. The Supreme Court could also issue a circular that would allow judges on humanitarian grounds to reduce bail or release a detainee on their own recognizance.

COVID-19, like other infectious diseases, poses a higher risk to people who live in close proximity to one another. Congestion in the Philippine prison system and other concurrent health problems have been well documented. The chief of the hospital at the New Bilibid prison, the country’s national penitentiary, said that about 5,200 inmates die every year from tuberculosis and other illnesses, as well as violence – about 20 percent of the prison’s total population.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, raised an alarm on March 25 about detention facilities and COVID-19 around the world, warning of “catastrophic consequences” if the prison population is neglected. Among the measures she called for are early release of vulnerable detainees.

International guidance says the most important approach for detention centers to prevent transmission of the coronavirus is to impose “social distancing,” which is defined as allowing two meters of separation at all times among detainees and staff, including during meals and within cells. It is also critically important to isolate individuals at high risk, individuals testing positive or with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, as well as their close contacts. However, such measures are not feasible in the Philippines’ severely overcrowded prisons, reinforcing the need for authorities to immediately reduce prison populations.

Human Rights Watch, in a document on the human rights dimension of COVID-19, recommended that government agencies with authority over prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers should consider reducing their populations through appropriate supervised or early release of low-risk detainees, including those in pre-trial detention for non-violent and lesser offenses, those near the end of their sentence, and those whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or unjustified. Inmates at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for similar release with regard to whether the detention facility has the capacity to protect their health, including guaranteed access to treatment, and considering factors such as the gravity of the crime and time served.

The government has a responsibility to protect and provide medical treatment for detainees who are not released. The authorities should draft comprehensive plans to prevent and respond to a COVID-19 outbreak in detention facilities that do not rely on simple lockdowns, but provide measures to protect the physical and mental health of detainees. Prisons should protect inmates and staff while allowing detainees to have access to family and legal counsel.

“The Philippines faces catastrophic public health problems in its horribly overcrowded prisons and jails in the coming weeks,” Robertson said. “For humanitarian reasons and to stop COVID-19 from spreading, authorities need to get ahead of this situation by undertaking early releases and making sure the country’s detention facilities are equipped to take on the coronavirus.”