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Childhoods lost in Philippine jails

October 12, 2005 ·  By JOHN O'CALLAGHAN, ABS-CBN NEWS

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CALOOCAN CITY – At age 14, Christian was taken to a city jail in the Philippines on charges of selling and using a powerful methamphetamine known as “shabu”.

Nearly three years later, he is still in a cell, smaller than a boxing ring, with 28 other youths awaiting a verdict in court.

But Christian and his young cell-mates are lucky. Caloocan City Jail, on the northern outskirts of Manila, is one of very few in the Philippines where minors are separated from adults.

Largely because the government cannot afford other options, most of the thousands of juveniles detained each year must fend for themselves in overcrowded jails among grown men charged with murder, rape and other violent crimes.

For many, their families do not have the money that can help speed up a notoriously slow and overloaded justice system.

“They should not be here. It is the court who orders them to stay,” said Alejandro Almacen, the warden of Caloocan City Jail.

“If they are incarcerated now, it will ruin their futures.”

Children as young as 9 can be jailed in the Philippines. In Indonesia, criminal liability starts even lower at age 8, while it is 14 in Japan.

“The most difficult part is losing hope,” said Christian, protesting his innocence. “Because of them, I was not able to pursue my studies and I was separated from my family.”

After sporadic hearings, he is no closer to knowing his fate on the drug charges. The more serious of the two, selling shabu, has a mandatory sentence of life in prison or the death penalty.

Crime and punishment
With a third of the 86 million people in the Philippines living on a dollar a day and families commonly having six, seven or eight children, studies by various groups show that poverty, desperation and neglect play large roles in youth crime.

Juvenile Justice Network-Philippines, which works with young offenders, estimates there were more than 4,000 children in jails and detention centers in September.

“Most of them were charged with minor crimes such as petty theft, sniffing of glue or solvents, vagrancy and violation of curfew hours,” it said in a statement urging faster action on a bill in Congress to set up a separate legal track for minors.

The group says about 240 juveniles are serving sentences in adult penitentiaries, including 18 on death row who cannot prove they are minors because they have no birth certificates.

By detaining children with adults and sentencing them to capital punishment, the Philippines is breaking international treaties it has signed and its own laws.

Responsibility for young offenders rests with local authorities, but the justice department has started to address the issue by working with several other agencies to determine the exact number of jailed minors and to share resources.

“We really have to decongest our prisons and detention cells,” Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales said on television.

Proposals for a stand-alone system for young offenders, including punishment options such as community service, have been in Congress since the 1990s.

Senators in the upper house have resumed deliberation on the Comprehensive Juvenile Justice System bill.

The bill would raise criminal liability to age 12, provide separate detention centres for children, establish diversion programmes at the community level and create the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

But it is a long way from being passed, with anti-terrorism legislation, hundreds of other bills and a variety of inquiries also demanding the attention of Congress.

Even with the juvenile justice law, the debt-laden government would have to find funding for the program and facilities.

Lost childhood
The United Nations’ children’s agency, UNICEF, has joined with Juvenile Justice Network-Philippines and other groups to publicize the issue of minors in jail and push for reforms.

“In many cases a child is charged with an offense where the penalty is only 10 days in prison or a one-dollar fine,” said Alberto Muyot, a lawyer who works for UNICEF.

“That child may eventually be released after the process has gone through, perhaps after a period of 12 months, so that’s one year taken away from the life of a child for something so small.”

The plight of these children was highlighted in “Bunso” (youngest), a documentary film by Ditsi Carolino that tracked three boys held at a jail on the central island of Cebu.

They and dozens of other minors were packed into one cell but mingled with the adults during the day. Food was in short supply and the flimsy roof leaked whenever it rained, soaking the thin mats and cardboard the boys used as beds on the concrete floor.

Two city jails shown to Reuters were far cleaner and better equipped than the one in “Bunso”.

Improvements to protect and help juveniles have been made in some facilities since the film was shot in 2001, but the majority remain spartan at best.

In Caloocan, the minors have too few simple plywood beds to go round. But they do have a solid roof, regular meals, a television, portable stereo and basic lessons in mathematics, science and English given once a week by a local teacher.

Jesper, 14, was arrested after being implicated by a friend who confessed to stealing and trying to sell steel pipes worth about $5. He had been at the jail for a week, had not seen a lawyer or a judge, and had no idea how long he would be there.

“I miss my family,” Jesper said in a soft, halting voice. “There’s nobody to talk to here.” [End]

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