Release on bail of inmates to stop COVID-19 spread backed

THE progressive Makabayan Bloc in the House of Representatives on Saturday backed the House committee on justice’s recommendation to temporary release on bail some prisoners to mitigate the impact of possible coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) spread inside the highly congested jails in the country.

The Makabayan bloc welcomed the suggestion made by the panel led by Leyte Rep. Vicente “Ching” Veloso to the Defeat COVID-19 Committee of the House of Representatives chaired by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and co-chaired by House Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez, the chairman of the powerful House committee on rules.

“We appeal to President Duterte, the Department of Justice, the BuCor (Bureau of Corrections), the BJMP (Bureau of Jail Management and Penology) and the Supreme Court to initiate immediate steps for the mass release of vulnerable detainees and prisoners for humanitarian reasons.  Before it becomes too late, the government should act now!” The Makabayan bloc said.

The Veloso panel said it is a novel idea to temporarily free the prisoners on bail, particularly the elderly, those with underlying, health conditions, and first-time offenders.

“We, the Makabayan Bloc in the House of Representatives, call on the Duterte administration to heed the growing call of several sectors for the immediate release of vulnerable detainees and prisoners to prevent a grave disaster from happening in the country’s overcrowded jail facilities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping the country and all over the world,” said the Makabayan bloc.

The Makabayan Bloc in the House of Representatives consists of seven party-list lawmakers including Carlos Isagani Zarate, Eufemia "Ka Femia" Cullamat and Ferdinand Gaite of Bayan Muna, France Castro of Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT-Teachers), Arlene Brosas of Gabriela, and Sarah Elago of Kabataan.

“We strongly support the petition filed before the Supreme Court for the release of political prisoners from the different detention facilities who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to their conditions as elderly, sick or pregnant and are committed or detained in facilities where it is practically impossible to practice self-isolation, social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions,” they said.

“We also strongly support and endorse the recommendation made by the House Justice Committee chaired by Rep. Vicente Veloso III dated April 6, 2020 for the immediate release, for humanitarian reasons, of persons deprived of liberty (PDLs), including those who are first time offenders, those who are senior citizens, and those with underlying health conditions associated with high risk of severe symptoms of COVID-19.  The committee recommendation was already submitted to the Defeat COVID-19 Committee of the House of Representatives,” they stressed.

According to them, there are a total of 188,278 inmates in the country’s 933 prisons. Of the figure, they added that 75.1 percent are pre-trial detainees.

“These calls are also in line with the global call for the release of prisoners made by the United Nations for countries ravaged by COVID-19 to effectively prevent, if not stop, the further spread of the dreaded virus,” said the lawmakers.

"COVID-19 has begun to strike prisons, jails and immigration detention center, as well as residential care homes and psychiatric hospitals, and risks rampaging through such institutions' extremely vulnerable populations," noted UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a March 25 statement, according to them.

“As aptly pointed by the UN, just like in other countries, jail facilities in the Philippines are also severely overcrowded, even unsanitary, filled with an aging population who are mostly from impoverished sectors with a history of poor health care and who suffer from respiratory ailments and other health problems.  The country’s penal system has the highest congestion rate in the world at 605 percent and this make the detainees and staff particularly vulnerable to and at a higher risk of catching the deadly new coronavirus,” they said.

At present, the following countries have already released prisoners in their respective jurisdictions: Afghanistan, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland and Wales, Morocco, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom and United States.