THE Philippine government freed more than 40,000 prisoners during a 15-week lockdown amid the threat of a coronavirus outbreak in one of the world’s most cramped prisons.

Data from the Supreme Court showed that 43,171 prisoners had been released from March 17 to July 3.

Courts in Metro Manila ordered the release of 8,909 inmates, followed by Southern Luzon courts with 7,443, and Central Luzon courts with 6,203.

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), a database kept by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research at the University of London.

The high court earlier released guidelines to decongest jails and prisons during the pandemic.

The Office of the Court Administrator also ordered judges to implement the rule allowing the release of prisoners who have served the minimum penalty or have no witnesses against them.

The high court also issued guidelines on the release of indigent inmates through reduced bail. It also allowed the conduct hearings through videoconferencing.

The Department of Justice also approved the rules easing the requirements for parole and executive clemency.

A group of political prisoners, who claimed to be vulnerable to infection asked the high tribunal in May to order their temporary release on humanitarian grounds. The court had yet to act on their plea.

As of 2017, the Philippines 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 pre-trial 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.

New York-based Human Rights Watch had urged the government of President Rodrigo R. Duterte to act fast and release some detainees to prevent a major health catastrophe.

A total of 301 inmates and prison employees at Bureau of Corrections facilities had been infected with the coronavirus as of June 18.

Of the total, 141 inmates and 38 prison staff were from the National Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City, while 82 inmates and seven workers were from the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong City.

Thirty-three workers from the facility’s national headquarters also got the virus. The numbers exclude cases in the country’s jails.

Justice Undersecretary Markk L. Perete earlier said 145 prisoners had recovered, while 16 died.

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.

Also to blame are 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. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas