By Vann Marlo M. Villegas

IT’S BEEN an uncomfortable year in the headlines for the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) after a prisoner early-release scandal, revelations of widespread drug-dealing and unauthorized creature comforts inside the prison system dented confidence in the government’s handling of some of its worst convicts. So it’s no surprise that the first order of business for its leadership is a thorough purge.

High on Director-General Gerald Q. Bantag’s agenda is filling about 1,500 openings for Corrections Officer 1 (CO1), the lowest rank of personnel authorized to deal with convicts. The new manpower intake follows the National Capital Region Office’s detailing of 551 police officers to BuCor in October as temporary replacements for relieved prisons personnel, who were to undergo retraining and evaluation.

Major Alberto R. Tapiru, Jr., the BuCor spokesman, said: “Next year (2020) po ay may 1,500 na slots para sa CO1. Ito po ang aming pag-asa na sa pamamagitan po ng mga bagong sibol ay mapalitan po yung dating kalakaran sa New Bilibid Prison (NBP) at sa mga kolonya na rin po dahil makikinabang po ang mga kolonya sa aming kukunin next year (Next year we’re taking on 1,500 CO1s. The new people are our best hope for changing the business-as-usual mindset at New Bilibid Prison and at the various prison colonies),” he told BusinessWorld in a mobile-phone interview on Nov. 23.

While there is no guarantee prisons officers will not turn corrupt, he said BuCor plans to rotate personnel regularly to keep staff from getting too close to influential prisoners like drug lords.

Kagaya po ’yung pagbabantay sa mga nakatalaga doon sa loob dahil hindi po natin masisiguro na sila ay hindi masilaw… sa panghihikayat ng mga drug lords na nasa loob so gagawin po namin, from time to time ay reshuffle po sila sa mga iba pang pasilidad (We have to monitor people constantly and cannot be certain they won’t be tempted by the drug lords, so from time to time we will reshuffle them to other facilities),” he added.

He said it will take time for inmates to re-establish connections with their jailers in order to continue their drug-dealing operations.

In October, BuCor together with other government agencies including the police demolished illegal structures and confiscated contraband in the maximum security compound of the NBP.

Mr. Bantag said in a statement at the time that random raids were intended to clear out contraband in jail cells. He also said allowing inmates to live in illegal structures would enable them to keep mobile phones and prohibited items.

Mr. Tapiru said the confiscation of mobile phones effectively cut inmates off from their drug connections on the outside.

Dahil po doon sa mga nakuhang cellphone naniniwala po kami na naputol na po yung ugnayan lalong-lalo na po ’yung Chinese drug lords sa kanilang mga contact sa labas. At tinututukan na rin po ’yung mga major players (We believe removing the mobile phones cut off their dealings with the outside, especially the Chinese drug lords. We are now focused on monitoring the major players),” he said.

Enforcing security at the prison gates will be key in the event new contraband slips through, he added.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte appointed Mr. Bantag in September after dismissing Nicanor E. Faeldon over the supposed premature release of close to 2,000 inmates convicted of heinous crimes, following the application of the so-called good-conduct time allowance (GCTA) rule.

The GCTA was introduced in a 2013 law, Republic Act 10592, as a prison-decongestion measure. It allows sentences to be shortened for prisoners who abide by prison disciplinary rules. As drafted, GCTA is not available to recidivists or those who failed to surrender voluntarily, though the Implementing Rules and Regulations were later modified to specifically exclude those convicted of heinous crimes and escapees.

The President subsequently cleaned house at BuCor due to corruption allegations that turned up during Senate investigations into the early release of notorious inmates.

During Senate hearings in October, it emerged that the early-release process was prone to corruption, including allegations that early release were for sale, as were hospital passes and transfers to less-crowded facilities.

The Office of the Ombudsman subsequently ordered the preventive suspension of 30 prisons officials pending investigation into their involvement.

Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra ordered Mr. Bantag, a former Region 4 director of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, to resolve the irregularities at the bureau, with marching orders to clean up the GCTA process, halt the drug trade in the prison system, and digitize inmate records.

Mr. Tapiru also said the bureau also plans to upgrade its facilities and medical personnel at the NBP to improve the quality of services.

NBP hospital chief Henry Fabro in November said BuCor has only 13 doctors nationwide, with four or five assigned to the NBP hospital. The NBP hospital has only 36-40 nurses as well.

Mr. Fabro said the prison hospital system has asked the Department of Health to supply doctors on similar terms as its “doctors to the barrios” program.

More facilities are also expected to be built starting next year in the prison colonies under BuCor in Iwahig, Palawan; Davao; and Zamboanga. These have been approved and were originally due to start in 2019.

The Bureau also plans to prioritize the good-conduct release of qualified prisoners who had been released initially but had to surrender amid the GCTA review, Mr. Tapiru said.

Mahigpit po ang bilin ni Director-General na palayain na po lahat ng qualified para ma-address po itong congestion dito sa Bilibid. I-cocomputerize din po ang records, upang mapadali ang pagpapalaya sa kanila para tuluyan nang matanggal ang hocus-pocus sa releasing (The director-general’s orders are to release all those qualified for it to address congestion in Bilibid. We will also computerize all the records to ease prisoner releases and remove all instances of manipulation in releasing),” he said.

As of Nov. 23, the date he gave his interview, Mr. Tapiru said of the more than 2,000 who returned to detention, 661 have been released while 1,584 are being processed.

The BuCor will need to refer decisions to the Department of Justice (DoJ) when the prisoner is connected to a high-profile case, Undersecretary Markk L. Perete said.

While the BuCor is an agency of the DoJ, Mr. Perete said the BuCor is “more or less independent” as the department only has administrative supervision over the bureau.

Mr. Perete said that under this set-up, the department cannot block programs of the director-general and cannot direct him to “act in a certain way.”

“From what we are seeing, it seems like what DG Bantag is bent on some sort of internal cleansing with in the Bureau of Corrections and because the law has given him that wide latitude, (for our part) we somehow think that he is in the best position to assess what needs to be done in the Bureau of Corrections and then do what he must in order to achieve his objective based,” he said in an interview.

The DoJ continues to seek progress reports on the programs implemented so far. At this point, he said, the director general has only submitted plans prior to their execution, he said.

The DoJ considers early release an indicator of the correctional system’s effectivity because it points to the success of a prisoner’s rehabilitation.

“Right now, DG Bantag is most focused on the internal cleansing but after this cleansing period, we understand that we’d go back to the efficiency parameters we have set up to assess the performance of the Bureau of Corrections,” he said.

“I think that’s why he’s prioritizing (the) cleansing and reorganization because he understands that having the right people with the right moral compass is very crucial to instituting reforms, long-term reforms in the bureau,” he said.

Mr. Perete said a few affected employees are ”resisting some of the programs” of the director general, but “any form of cleansing or reorganization will be with some sort of resistance.”

“We’re just hoping that it will be managed properly by the director general and we’re confident that he will do so.”

Marlon M. Villarin, a political science professor at the University of Santo Tomas, said the change in the leadership was a sign of Mr. Duterte frustration over the perennial problems of the institution.

“President Duterte’s choice of BuCor chief may not be a typical career executive, the appointment of BuCor Chief Bantag represents the President’s dismay/frustration over the issues of corruption in the BuCor (while) as much as possible wanting to (introduce) positive and practical solutions,” he told BusinessWorld in a mobile-phone message.

Mr. Villarin said the problems in the BuCor are “decades-long” and a challenge to every administration.

These problems cannot be fully addressed in less than three years, he added.

“The present reform may not be able to totally address the problem but somehow the present approach (could be) capable of providing fundamental change,” he said.

“It’s just the issue whether the next president can sustain what was laid out by his predecessor,” he said, adding that BuCor reforms must be accompanied by sustainable reforms to the broader economy and society.