Paralegals trained by DIGNITY’s partner Balay played a major role in the early release of thousands of inmates in heavily congested jails in the Philippines.
The early release of almost 22,000 persons deprived of their liberty between March and July 2020 helped ease the problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the extremely overcrowded Philippine jails. By February 2021, the Philippines Supreme Court Chief Justice reported that a total of 120,000 inmates had been set free in order to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the jail population.
Jails and prisons in the Philippines have been severely hit by the pandemic. It is estimated that more than 1,000 inmates and jail staff in Philippine jails have suffered from COVID-19, however the number of those who died from the viral infection could not be ascertained due to the lack of information coming from the authorities.
The overcrowding of jails and prisons in the Philippines is a well-known problem caused to a great extent by the government’s tough crackdown on drug-related crime.
At the time of the introduction of the national public health emergency caused by COVID-19 in March 2020, the institutions under the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, BJMP, were housing 215,000 persons deprived of their liberty while being built for merely 41,000. About three quarters of them were being held awaiting trial.
During the course of the pandemic, appeals were raised by relatives of detainees, human rights groups, public health advocates, and legislators for an early release of inmates.
Priority given to the elderly or ill
In an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities, the Supreme Court issued guidelines in April 2020 on how first and second level courts could release qualified persons deprived of their liberty as a way to decongest prisons. It also ordered the imposition of reduced bail and recognizance to indigent inmates in order to ease up congestion in detention facilities. The Department of Justice, on its part, agreed to expedite the release of some inmates through parole or executive clemency. In these cases, priority was given to inmates who were elderly or ill.
From March to July 2020 the BJMP assisted a total of 21,858 persons deprived of liberty to benefit from early release in the 470 jail facilities under its jurisdiction. These figures were released by the Philippine Department of Interior and Local Government.
Among those released during the four months, 15,102 persons deprived of their liberty were released from 470 BJMP jails with the assistance of paralegal jail officers. These are jail officers who are specially trained to provide assistance to inmates on the legal process, their rights, and complaints mechanisms available to them. With the assistance received, the detainees were able to avail themselves of their right to bail, plea-bargaining, parole, or probation. Others were granted liberty through acquittal or at the end of their sentences. Of the released inmates, 409 were elderly, 621 were ill, and 24 were pregnant.
Paralegal jail officers have contributed very actively in obtaining early release of inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of DIGNITY and Balay Rehabilitation Center’s engagement with the BJMP through their joint project ‘Rights-based approach to torture prevention in the Philippines’, 70 jail paralegals and human rights officers from five city jails and two district jails in Western Mindanao were trained in 2018 and 2019 on the duties and functions of paralegal officers, basic concepts of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure, legal forms and preparation of legal documents, salient points of the Anti-Torture Law (RA 9745), review of BJMP Policy on Torture Documentation, screening and reporting, various modes of release, and Supreme Court circulars. Many groups, including Balay Rehabilitation Center, welcomed the gesture of the judiciary and the custodial authorities.
»The action by the courts, while commendable, should be sustained even when the threat of the pandemic has been reduced«, said Balay’s Program Coordinator Kaloy Anasarias. He pointed out that the justice system should continue to accord the persons deprived of their liberty a fair and expeditious treatment under the legal framework. He noted that the sluggish legal actions and the lack of basic information provided to detainees about the court proceedings and their right to due process impedes the prompt disposition of cases. He said that work of the trained jail paralegals is quite important to fill a gap that exists due to the lack of access by many inmates to legal representation.
The number of detainees in the 20 jails in Western Mindanao dropped by 12 per cent in the third quarter of 2020, bringing the number of detainees down from 5,700 to 5,000. Despite the commitment of new inmates, the paralegals facilitated additional releases further reducing the jail population to 4,707 in March 2021.
The regional paralegal office in Western Mindanao also launched a monthly legal consultation programme called Project Noel or No One is Excused from Law in March 2021. The project provides advice to paralegal and jail human rights action officers, as well as detainees in jails covered by the regional office on the rights of the accused and other legal concerns.
Most of those who were released in western Mindanao were detained in Pagadian City Jail and Zamboanga City Jail that were focus jails under the Balay and DIGNITY project.
The project was co-funded by the European Union.
Photograph: Geric Cruz