One of the most memorable images of President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs is a snapshot taken by Agence France Presse photographer Noel Celis inside the Quezon City Jail.
Originally meant to house only 800 inmates, the facility is now handling almost 4,000 detainees. It’s way too overcrowded these days that inmates already sleep in the open basketball court and in staircases – scenes that seems to be a real-life interpretation of Dante’s Inferno.
Despite of him winning international acclaim for the photo (including 3rd place in the 2017 World Press Photo contest for general news), Celis told Forbes magazine that he was not after the recognition. “I hope the spotlight would be on the inmates’ situation, not on the photographer,” he said.
The United Nations have called on the Philippine government to implement prison reforms long before Duterte became president. In 2015, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines- Episcopal Commission on Prison Pastoral Care (ECPPC) reported that 35 percent of the 114,368 inmates supervised by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology and the Bureau of Correction were actually found guilty of crimes and were serving their sentences.
The two-thirds were charged but haven’t been convicted. Obviously, this problem has dramatically worsened in the past year given the new administration’s aggressive campaign against drug crimes. As noted before, mass incarceration has long been a problem here.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime also explained that mass incarceration merely highlights income inequality: “Imprisonment disproportionately affects individuals and families living in poverty. When an income generating member of the family is imprisoned the rest of the family must adjust to this loss of income.” And, as The Filipino Scribe noted previously, poor defendants are not likely to be able to hire top-notch lawyers to guide them throughout the litigation.
In 2014, there was this documentary from GMA Network’s I Witness that featured two elderly women who have spent many years in jail despite the dubious nature of their cases. It is very likely that these are not isolated cases. Hence, it is imperative for the administration to consider the following to solve the worsening mass incarceration crisis in the country:
1) Release everyone that already deserves to be released: elderly inmates, those with terminal conditions, and those that have already served the minimum of their sentences.
2) Consider lowering the prescribed sentences for non-violent felonies (e.g. as regards drug use)
It’s very clear that the government hasn’t given much thought at all to rehabilitative justice. For instance, a lot of drug dependents can still be saved from their addiction through various intervention programs, if only they can have the opportunity to avail of those.
To say that drug dependents are nothing “walking dead” with no hope for redemption is wrong and misguided. You see, a lot can change if we begin seeing the drug problem as a health emergency.