Crime & Justice

Our prisons are hellholes

Jun 29 2018 - One of the most nightmarish experiences that any Filipino or foreigner can experience in this country (if they survive) is to spend time in our prisons. Thus, every kind of maneuver is made by those who manage to avoid incarceration — be it suddenly getting sick after years of carrying on healthily and checking into a hospital with a convenient serious diagnosis of illness from a compliant doctor, to effectively running away from the law and becoming a fugitive. Other variations of escaping the brutish conditions that our prisons have been allowed to come to, is to ask a judge to order confinement at the NBI or the PNP temporary incarceration places where the public is on view and vice versa. Then perhaps the conditions are less obviously dreadful, the bullies or other evil denizens that prisons have within their bowels are on public view, a minority, and therefore controllable.

Ma. Isabel Ongpin

High-profile convicts of means who finally cannot avoid being incarcerated in the national penitentiary, are somehow able to make arrangements through money or influence to be given accommodations such as a kubo (hut) outside the main buildings, where the privileged prisoner is relatively alone or with chosen companions and in possession of amenities like airconditioning, appliances and other comforts not inherent in prisons. If there is a sudden inspection or stricter implementation of rules, the convict may temporarily have to be present for the roll call in the morning and at night the main prison building from where he goes back to his kubo. But at least he gets a good night’s sleep.

Uncomfortable to dreadful to horrible as conditions are in the national penitentiaries, far worse are the city jails where prisoners who have not been tried, have no date for their trials, are seemingly forgotten by the authorities, are packed without any concern to the conditions of overcrowding, the resulting heat from too many bodies in one place and the unsupervised behavior of one to another. The lack of fresh air, the inability to lie down or sit down, maybe having to keep standing for lack of space, brings out the worst in those who have to endure it. Here sleep is impossible except in relays. These are the ultimate hellholes of prisons that we have allowed to degenerate far below humane standards of confinement.

Our prisons are grossly and dangerously overcrowded. Under these conditions, bullies and their supporters (for self-defense and for whatever reason) proliferate, cannot be controlled and cause mayhem, havoc and murder. The weak, the inexperienced, the young become victims.

Police authorities or prison custodians are few and the prisoners are many. That is one reason why these custodians are apt to be distant, even afraid of the mass of prisoners so that they are allowed to rampage. Some authorities prefer to let the toughies persecute the meek, a sin of omission that brings on dire consequences.

No need to tally here the kind of food given from the miserable budget allowed, beside the number of prisoners to be fed.

Human dignity and humanitarian conditions are not in the universe of these prisoners. These prison conditions have been here for decades. Why is there no attempt at reform, no compassion for the locked-up? And what about practical steps like building better, more humane prisons?

Only private do-gooders, religious members, some educational institutions who concern themselves with prisoners mitigate the conditions but only in penitentiaries. And as outsiders, they cannot quite reach everyone or do enough. City and town jails are usually overlooked because of the idea that prisoners are there temporarily which is far from true. Many stay for years, even decades without being tried.

In the last administration there was a public/private project to build a large, modern (presumably humane) prison facility in Nueva Ecija. It was about to be bid out, but for whatever reason the project fell through. This administration seems to have put it on hold, which perpetuates, if not worsens, the already dreadful prison conditions. In the Build Build Build world, is there no room for a humanitarian priority like new facilities for prisoners?

Aside from better physical facilities, there is a need for more professional rehabilitation procedures like education, livelihood activities, psychological help, spiritual guidance and a general acceptance that prisoners are human beings that can be rehabilitated. Only private parties seem to be aware of these needs. Government policy seems to be indifferent.

Unfortunately, our prison officials are not trained custodians but retired personnel from other careers, mostly military, thrust into being prison managers. They see their positions as temporary, tolerate the onerous conditions in jails, are passive to the need for reform or make an overall judgment that criminals do not deserve compassion or assistance.

Considering our slow and inefficient justice system, the inequality in our society, and the poor quality of police crime investigation work, as well the latest draconian treatment of loiterers and street habitués who are willy-nilly incarcerated, injustice is rampant. A good number of prisoners who are convicted are fall guys, convicted of crimes that they were not masterminds of but were paid accomplices or maybe even innocent bystanders. Drug addicts in jail are mostly poverty-stricken users, not the big-time drug lords. And if there are big-time drug lords, check out the kubos, the amenities and luxuries that they somehow continue to enjoy while incarcerated. They are so much more important than others that their testimonies are given worth.

The above presents a slew of social problems in the justice system of our society. How to solve them will be a herculean task of delivering equal justice for all. One little first step, perhaps seemingly inconsequential, would be to have a more humane incarceration of our fellow human beings, in equality and justice, and with concern and compassion.

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

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