Philippines Frees Nearly 10,000 Prison Inmates to Help Stop Spread of COVID-19

Human rights group also says country may not be fully reporting coronavirus prison deaths.
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Almost 10,000 prison inmates have been freed in the Philippines to help stop the continued rise in cases of COVID-19. 

According to a report in the New York Times, Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said that more than 2,000 of the 9,731 inmates freed between March 1 and April 29 were from prisons in Manila. About 4,600 were prisons elsewhere in Luzon.

“We continue as much as we can to decongest the jails,” the NYT quoted Justice Leonen as saying during an online news briefing with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) on Saturday morning (May 2).

On Wednesday (April 29), Malacañang announced that the Department of Justice was expediting the release of sick and elderly inmates after more cases had been reported of the coronavirus affecting jails and prisons.

“I heard from (Justice Secretary Menardo) Guevarra himself that they’re expediting the processing of individuals who may qualify for probation and parole to decongest our detention facilities,” news media quoted presidential spokesman Harry Roque on Wednesday.

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According to data from World Prison Brief, the Philippines’ prison population was at 215,000 as of November 2019, although the official capacty of the entire country’s prison system was only at 40,000. This means our occupancy level is at a staggering 463 percent.

The Bureau of Corrections, however, says the congestion rate in its 125 prisons was 310 percent as of January 2020, according to a report on Arab News

In a related development, Human Rights Watch chided the Philippine government on Wednesday and said it has not fully reported prison deaths, and hinted that COVID-19 may be spreading more widely and rapidly in the country’s detention facilities.

According to the HRW news release last April 29, five inmates it interviewed separately told said that since March 25, 2020, at least seven inmates have died in the Quezon City Jail and one in the Cavite Provincial Jail. The human rights watchdog 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.

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The HRW news release added that 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.

“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,” the HRW said.

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