By Christopher Lloyd Caliwan

DECONGESTING JAILS. Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo visits the Pasay City Jail on Oct. 29, 2023, in observance of National Correctional Consciousness Week. The DILG on Monday (Nov. 6, 2023) hoped that the proposed national jail decongestion summit would help address the longstanding problem of overcrowded prison facilities in the country. (Photo courtesy of BJMP)

MANILA – Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Benjamin Abalos Jr. on Monday said he is confident that the perennial problem of overcrowding in jails across the country would soon be addressed once a national jail decongestion summit pushes through.

Abalos made the announcement after the measure was proposed following the visit of Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo’s recent visit to the Pasay City Jail on Oct. 29, in observance of the National Correctional Consciousness Week.

Gesmundo said the summit will be participated in by major stakeholders and players led by the SC, the DILG and its attached agency, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP).

Abalos described the summit as a significant step towards addressing the persistent issue of jail congestion in the country.

He also sees it as an opportunity for all stakeholders to come together and chart a course towards more effective, humane, and equitable incarceration practices that could lead to meaningful and lasting reforms.

“Our department sincerely appreciates the Supreme Court’s commitment to helping us address and reform the conditions of persons deprived of liberty (PDLs). It is a significant move towards achieving a fair and just criminal justice system,” Abalos said in a statement.

The Supreme Court also expressed high hopes that the inter-agency National Jail Decongestion Summit scheduled December 6 and 7 will be able to come up with comprehensive solutions to address the 386-percent overcrowding in the country’s prisons.

“The National Jail Decongestion Summit is expected to be a significant step forward in fostering a more just and effective criminal justice system, ensuring the protection of individual rights, and promoting the overall well-being of our communities,” the SC said in a statement.

The SC said the summit will bring together stakeholders, experts, and justice sector actors from across the nation, along with international partners, to devise comprehensive strategies that prioritize sustainable solutions for the reduction of inmate populations in correctional facilities.

“The Summit will provide an essential platform for collaborative discussion, innovative idea sharing, and the exploration of evidence-based practices. Addressing the root causes of overpopulation and implementing effective measures to alleviate the strain on correctional systems are among the primary objectives of this crucial gathering,” it added.

Gesmundo, Abalos and Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla, along with legal experts, advocacy groups, and representatives from relevant government agencies will contribute their insights and expertise toward the development of sustainable and equitable solutions through panel discussions, workshops, and presentations, the SC said.

Meanwhile, BJMP chief Jail Director Ruel Rivera emphasized the urgency of addressing jail congestion, noting the bureau’s continuing efforts to address the situation.

“In 2018, our facilities were operating at an alarming congestion rate of 600 percent, posing serious challenges to the well-being and reformation of PDL. Today, we are proud to report that we have successfully reduced the congestion rate to 351 percent in 2023, thanks to various innovative programs and collaborations,” he added.

The ongoing initiatives by the BJMP include the establishment of additional jail facilities, the enhancement of the PDL Welfare and Development Program, and the enhancement of Jail Paralegal Programs that assist inmates in the speedy disposition of their cases.

Fate of winning PDL bets in village polls

In the meantime, the BJMP said it will not extend preferential treatment to three detainees who won in the recent barangay elections.

BJMP spokesperson Chief Insp. Jayrex Bustinera said the bureau will allow the three to perform their job while in detention.

The three detainees won as barangay kagawad (councilors) in Dasmariñas City in Cavite; Tanay town in Rizal; and Cagayan de Oro City in Misamis Oriental.

“There will be no change (in their treatment), there will be no VIP treatment that will be extended to them,” Bustinera said in a radio interview.

The Supreme Court, in a decision issued in August last year, has allowed PDLs to participate in the elections, specifically those who are yet to be convicted by final judgment.

Bustinera said a court order will still be required if the barangay officials need to go out of their detention cells to perform their duties and responsibilities as barangay officials.

He said the BJMP has coordinated with the Commission on Elections to clarify how these officials can perform their job while in detention.

“While waiting, according to our legal office, we are going to follow precedent from the Supreme Court on former senators who were detained and were allowed to perform their jobs,” Bustinera said.

Asked if the councilors will be given access to the internet, phones and computers to perform their duties, Bustinera said they are still looking into these measures.

He noted that PDLs are enjoying the privilege of e-dalaw or electronic visitation and that some inmates are also attending the hearing of their cases virtually.

“If there is proper coordination, that can be done by the BJMP,” he said, adding any visit to these officials will have to be coordinated with the BJMP, just like with the other PDLs. (With a report from Benjamin Pulta/PNA)