Sat, Sep 02, 2017 - Page 5 News List

Philippine prisons at breaking point

‘REALLY WILD’:One officer watches over 63 inmates on average, far from the stipulated one-to-seven ratio, and there are insufficient numbers to escort suspects to court hearings

Reuters, MANILA

In a teeming prison for undertrials in Manila, Rody Lacanilao, an inmate for 18 months, says he prays for clear weather at night.

A downpour, he said, would prevent him and hundreds of fellow prisoners in the Quezon City jail from sleeping on plywood mats in an outdoor hallway. The cells themselves are overflowing with an influx of detainees from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s year-long war on drugs.

Thousands of people have been killed in Duterte’s campaign, mainly drug users and small-time peddlers. Tens of thousands of others have been thrown in jail, and both prisons and courts in the Southeast Asian nation are creaking under the pressure.

“Since the war on drugs started, it became harder to sleep,” Lacanilao said. “We have no place to go to when it rains.”

The 37-year-old is facing trial on a drugs charge.

The prison was initially built for 262 inmates, but now has 2,975, three-quarters of them jailed for drug-related offenses.

At night, its basketball court, chapel, classrooms and walkways become sleeping areas for detainees.

Inmates said living conditions are unbearable, made worse by the prospect that it could be years before their trials are decided. Many of them are not eligible for bail or cannot afford to pay the bond.

The Philippine Bureau of Jail Management and Penology put the prison population in the nation, including undertrials and convicts, at 137,417 as of the end of June, up 22 percent since Duterte took office at the end of June last year.

Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency arrested 96,703 suspected pushers, users and chemists from July last year until last month, according to police data.

A staggering 94 percent of people jailed for drug offenses are still undertrials.

Police in Manila arrest nearly 100 drug suspects each day, Manila Police Chief Oscar Albayalde said.

“Whether they are minor charges or not, we have to arrest these people,” Albayalde said. “We make these arrests that contribute to the over-congestion of the detention cells ... but what can we do?”

Including a backlog, the Philippine Bureau of Jail Management and Penology says 303,534 narcotics cases were at trial or being processed as of June.

Most of the cases are defended by the Public Attorney’s Office, a legal aid agency attached to the Philippine Department of Justice. At the end of last year, the agency had a backlog of 303,000 drugs cases, compared with about 82,000 at the end of June last year, just before Duterte unleashed his fierce anti-drugs campaign.

The agency says it has 1,665 lawyers to handle a total of 709,128 criminal cases currently pending, meaning an average of 426 cases each.

“We have tons of work,” said public defender Karen Jay Sabugo, eating a meal of instant noodles at her desk. “There are times when I return to the office so exhausted that I can’t speak with colleagues anymore.”

The 30-year-old, in her first year as a trial lawyer, said she attends more than a dozen court hearings a day.

“In the morning we attend court hearings, and in the afternoon we prepare pleadings and meet clients. I go to jails to prepare our defense,” she said.

Boxloads of documents are piled up inside the Public Attorney’s Office in Quezon City. Most are related to cases, but some are applications for about 750 new positions the government has agreed to create in the agency in the next two years to handle the overflow of cases.

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