By Norman P. Aquino Special Reports Editor
Vann Marlo M. Villegas Reporter

ADELBERTO A. SILVA, 72, has been languishing in a jail near the Philippine capital for one-and-a-half years, while being tried for illegal gun possession.

Now, he wants to get out of jail to escape a brewing coronavirus outbreak that threatens the lives of inmates, jail workers and surrounding communities in the most overcrowded incarceration system in the world.

At least 40 inmates and jail workers mostly in Metro Manila have been infected with the virus so far with one death, prompting Human Rights Watch (HRW) to urge the government of President Rodrigo R. Duterte to act fast and release some detainees to prevent a major health catastrophe.

“Everyone acknowledges that jails in the Philippines are obscenely overcrowded, with people living right on top of each other, and recognizes that COVID-19 is an incredibly contagious disease that can spread like wildfire through crowds,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

“So it is astonishing that the government is being so obtuse and refusing to reduce prison populations by releasing those inmates held for nonviolent, relatively minor offenses,” he said.

“Without quick action to significantly reduce overcrowding, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) could find itself facing thousands of seriously sick prisoners and no way to quarantine or care for them,” he added.

Nine inmates and nine staff members at a jail in Quezon City — a highly urbanized and the Philippines’ most populous city — have the coronavirus, according to the local jail bureau.

The city jail was built for 800 prisoners but housed 3,800 inmates as of 2016, making social distancing as a control measure simply impossible.

Meanwhile, at least 19 convicts and a staff member at the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong City have also been infected, according to the BuCor.

Two inmates at the Cebu City Jail were also infected, one of them dying before he could get his test result, ABS-CBN News reported on Tuesday, citing the mayor.

With 215,000 prisoners nationwide, Philippine jails and prisons are overfilled more than five times their official capacity, making it the most overcrowded prison system in the world, according to the World Prison Brief (WPB).

As of 2017, it had 933 jails — seven national prisons and 926 city, district, municipal and provincial jails, which are not enough to contain inmates, three-quarters of whom are at the pretrial stage, WPB said on its website.

Many jails in the Philippines fail to meet the minimum United Nations standards given inadequate food, poor nutrition and unsanitary conditions.

“So many inmates die of diseases while in jail,” Hannah Glimpse Nario-Lopez, an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines’ Department of Sociology, said by telephone.

“There’s tuberculosis, boils and diarrhea. There’s not enough food and water, and facilities are dirty,” she said. “They don’t even have toilets there. Sometimes they defecate in cans — it’s really, really terrible. The coronavirus pandemic heightens the concern.”

While people often use “prison” and “jail” interchangeably, these are not the same.

The local jails house inmates charged with crimes but are not yet convicted, waiting to pay bail to be released until trial or can’t afford bail, as well as those with a jail sentence of three years or less.

These are managed by the BJMP under the Department of Interior and Local Government.

On the other hand, the seven national prisons and penal farms hold prisoners convicted of crimes with sentences of more than three years and are managed by the Bureau of Corrections under the Department of Justice.

The local Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly flagged the worsening congestion in the country’s jails, more recently because of the high and sudden influx of arrested suspects in connection with Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs that has killed several thousands.

“There are also other reasons such as delays in the issuance of commitment orders, slow disposition of cases or protracted trials, small lock-up cells and the inability of detainees to post bail,” it said.

Tens of thousands of inmates are often detained far longer without ever seeing a judge. About 75% of the country’s 215,000 prisoners are in the pretrial stage.

Police have suspended anti-drug operations while the main Philippine island of Luzon is on lockdown until April 30, spokesman Brigadier General Bernard Banac said in a mobile phone message.

“All activities are geared toward prevention of the spread of COVID-19 under the enhanced community quarantine,” he said. The government has also banned visitations at the country’s jails and prisons.

Mr. Silva, one of 22 political prisoners who have sought judicial relief on humanitarian grounds, claims to be hypertensive and at high risk of dying in case he gets infected with the virus that has sickened more than 6,000 and killed about 400 people in the Philippines.

“The petitioners are praying for a fair chance at surviving the devastating impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in spaces that are not blighted with overcrowding and lack of access to hygiene measures and medical care,” according to a copy of their pleading.

Gabriel Chaklag, a spokesman for the BuCor, said on April 17 there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City but nine inmates were being monitored.

“If ever infections arise, we have mechanisms in place to deal with that situation,” Mr. Chaklag said in a mobile phone message. “Firstly, we have isolation areas for quarantine purposes.”

He also said the bureau has partnered with hospitals in case prisoners need to be treated and hospitalized. “That is on top of our prevention measures in place.”

Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra said the BuCor had taken “the necessary precautionary measures early on.”

“That’s why there have been only a few reported cases there. The DoJ is closely monitoring the situation there, and has recommended more stringent measures should there be any sign of a developing contagion,” he said in a mobile phone message.

Mr. Robertson noted that in countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka and the US, prisoners have rioted because they thought authorities were refusing to protect them from the virus that has sickened 2.5 million and killed more than 170,000 people worldwide.

He said the government should release prisoners only if they are detained for non-serious or nonviolent offenses.

“Top priority should go to older prisoners, particularly over the age of 60, and sick prisoners with underlying medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer,” he said.

The government should also release inmates in pretrial detention and find alternatives to make sure they appear for trial, the HRW director said.

“Prisoners with relatively short sentences of less than two years, and those with one year or less left to serve are also good candidates for release,” he said.

“Of course, those detained for political reasons, peacefully asserting their rights and all others detained without sufficient legal basis should also be immediately released,” he added.

The Justice department, one of three agencies in charge of the country’s jail system, declined to say whether there was a push to release some prisoners.

“The issue on the release of inmates with pending cases is sub judice,” Mr. Guevarra said in a mobile phone message, citing the pending case at the Supreme Court.

“As for persons deprived of liberty who are already serving their final sentence, their release is governed by existing rules on good conduct and special time credits, parole and executive clemency,” he added.

The tribunal has ordered the government to comment on the lawsuit that seeks to allow the release of the 22 inmates through bail on humanitarian grounds.

Several groups including a congressional bloc and judicial reform lobbyists have also called on the court to order the release of the prisoners.

The tribunal’s court administrator this week also asked trial judges to enforce a six-year-old rule allowing the release of detainees who have been jailed for a time equal to the minimum of the penalty charged, amid the pandemic.

Mr. Robertson criticized the Justice chief for “making such an inane comment.” “Hiding behind court procedures at a time of crisis is hardly an indication of effective leadership,” he said.

“Instead of ducking the issue, the Justice secretary should be implementing plans for alternatives to incarceration for persons in pretrial detention for nonviolent crimes — including bail, electronic monitoring and other similar mechanisms,” he added.

The HRW director said the Philippines has “painted itself into a corner” by failing to address the massive crowding in its prisons.

“Now that there is a crisis, they can’t just snap their fingers and expect new prison space to appear out of thin air,” Mr. Robertson said.

“Urgently reviewing cases of inmates and releasing prisoners based on clear, publicly pronounced criteria is really the only way forward. Should the government fail to act, they will be effectively sentencing some of these prisoners to death by COVID-19,” he added.