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RP PRISON SYSTEM A LIVING HELL

February 3, 2007 ·  , Philippine Daily Inquirer

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Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 03, 2007
RAYMUND NARAG SPENT NEARLY SEVEN years in Quezon City jail for a crime he did not commit.

Three years after he was released from his living hell he published a book about his experience called “Freedom and Death: Inside the Jail.” Published in 2005, it painted a harrowing picture of a prison system more in tune with the 19th century than the modern age.

Narag, 33, was about to graduate with honors from the University of the Philippines in 1995 when he was accused of taking part in a fraternity rumble that resulted in the death of another student. After spending almost seven years in jail, he was acquitted and re leased from detention in 2002.

After the honor of his situation had sunk in, Narag decided he would use his time in jail productively. He organized and taught functional literacy classes for the inmates. He came up with projects to improve the lives of the prisoners. He also enrolled in the UP Open University program.

Upon his release, Narag decided he would make his career in the field of criminal justice. He took every opportunity to speak on the plight of people behind bars. The then Supreme Court Justice Hilario Davide took him in as a consultant on penal affairs. In 2005, the Supreme Court published his book.

A cultural attache at the United States Embassy who heard of Narag’s story recommended him for a Fulbright scholarship. He is now in the Michigan State University working on his master’s in criminal justice.
In his book, Narag laid out in graphic detail the subhuman existence inmates were forced to endure: the stench, the over crowding, the toilets that ran like rivers through the cells, disease and death.

Built in the 1950s, the Quezon City jail was only supposed to house 236 inmates. Today it is home to more than 3,000 packed in so tight that many inmates sleep standing up.

It is a scene repeated around the country in a prison system grossly undermanned, poorly funded and neglected by the country’s economic planners.

According to Chief Superintendent Antonio Cruz, head of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology and the largest cog in a fragmented penal service, the system is near to breaking point “Overcrowding is our most pressing problem,” he said.
Cruz’s bureau, which is an arm of the interior department, runs 1,100 prisons with a total cell area of over 56,000 square meters and a population at the end of 2006 of more than 60,000 inmates.

Most are awaiting trial while a small percentage are serving sentences for minor crimes like theft and illegal drug use.

Another 200 prisons are run by the police forces of smaller provincial towns as Cruz’s bureau with just 7,000 personnel, cannot cope. Ideally, he said, the system needs another 35,000 guards and support staff.

“The situation is not ideal” said Director General Avelino Razon, deputy chief for administration of the Philippine National Police.

“This takes up a big complement of men and women from their principal police duties,” he said.

About 17,000 other inmates convicted of more serious crimes like murder, kidnap ping and drug dealing are housed in slightly better facilities at the National Penitentiary compound in Muntinlupa City.

The UN Standard of the Minimum Treatment of Prisoners, to which the Philippine government is a signatory gives dear guidelines on how prisoners should be treated; including bedding and food, and states: “It is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or moth.”

In Quezon City jail a 30-square-meter cell with a holding capacity for 20 houses 180 to 200 inmates.

Nearly a thousand Death Row inmates contributed to the overcrowding at the maximum security section of the National Penitentiary after Congress abolished the death penalty last year.

“Conditions are a bit better here,” says in- mate Rodolfo Fernandez.

“Back at the provincial jail there would be 100 of us in a cell built for 40. Even the spaces beneath the beds were occupied.”

Fernandez was jailed for life for swindling neighbors seeking work abroad of their life savings.

Still, of the 185 inmates at his new quarter only 80 have beds while 105 use their own mats to sleep on the floor Policing packed jails with a handful of men is “very difficult,” Cruz said.

The rotting jail facilities themselves “become a rich source for improvising deadly weapons” such as rusted iron bars.

He said the bureau “has no jail facility for high-risk inmates nor maximum security cells”.

The US State Department, in a human rights report on the Philippines two years ago, said the country’s prison conditions were “rudimentary and some times harsh,” were “over crowded, lacked basic Infrastructure, and provided prisoners with an inadequate diet.”

It said the “slow judicial process exacerbated the problem of overcrowding. Some inmates took turns sleeping, and others slept on their feet”.

The study also cited “widespread corruption” among guards as well as “reports that guards abused prisoners,” including women who were “particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical assault by police and prison guards”.

Cruz admits congestion exposes inmates to “diseases, contamination,” and warns the problem will probably get worse before it gets better. But he denies prisoners are physically or sexually abused.

He estimates the prison population will rise by about 13 percent a year over the next eight years mainly due to case overload within the undermanned judicial system, as well as higher bail bonds imposed on drugs offenders who make up 60 percent of the national prison population.

The Manila-based Australian business consultant Peter Wallace said recently there are about a million cases pending for 1,470 judges across the country because a third of the country’s courts are without a judge.

“For a salary of P20, 000, there’s little question as to why that’s so,” he said. Less than one percent of the national budget goes to the judiciary.

With an annual budget of just P2.8 billion, “we don’t have enough financial support to construct new jails,” Cruz said.

Realistically, he added, under these conditions, rehabilitation—the fundamental objective of the penal system—just does not take place.

“You just go back and forth in the system, committing the same offense. AFP

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