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Hon. Elmira Cruz - Caisido, IAWJ Rising Leader

Jail Congestion Challenges in the Philippines
By Elmira Caisido
Posted: 2024-02-26T14:47:00Z

Jail Congestion Challenges in the Philippines

By Hon. Judge Elmira S. Cruz - Caisido 


Picture a pregnant woman incarcerated in one of the most heavily congested jails in the country throughout her pregnancy. One can only imagine how a pregnant mother would cope in a jail lacking adequate space for movement, proper sleeping quarters, sufficient prenatal facilities, and lacking in a clean water supply, among other necessities. Picture her again as she gives birth in jail without proper postnatal care for herself and her newborn child. What quality of life would the mother and child have while in detention? This is just one example of the challenges a woman in conflict with the law faces while inside a congested jail.


In the Philippines, jail congestion is a persistent problem that the entire government is actively seeking solutions to mitigate. Its harmful effects on the physical, mental, and psychological well-being of persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) are evident. Several factors contribute to the congestion problem, including an increase in the number of persons incarcerated and inadequate facilities to address this rise, a lack of budgetary allocation to build more facilities, clogged dockets in court, and a scarcity of prosecutors and public and private defenders that lead to delays in the prosecution of cases, among other issues.


In the data of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology as of September 30, 2022,[1] the population of jails is 131,311 nationwide, where 10.72% are female. The population consists of PDLs awaiting trial and those already serving their sentence. However, the ideal capacity of jails nationwide is only 32,760; thus, making the congestion rate around 400%.


The overcrowding problem in detention facilities impacts on how PDLs are treated while incarcerated. Supposedly, the objective of depriving the liberty of a person in conflict with law is for reformation and rehabilitation before their reintegration to society. But instead of achieving this objective, a PDL in a heavily congested jail could even develop physical hardships, anxiety and trauma. The women, elderly and the sickly in conflict with law are the most vulnerable PDLs that are greatly affected by this congestion problem because they require special attention for their needs. For women in particular, they have special requirements on health and sanitation like pre and post-natal care, proper beds for pregnant women, breastfeeding rooms for nursing mothers, clean comfort rooms, access to and adequate supply of food, water, and hygiene kits, among others.


As one of the pillars of the Philippine Criminal Justice System, the Philippine Supreme Court issued Guidelines for Decongesting Holding Jails by Enforcing the Right of Accused Persons to Bail and to Speedy Trial in 2014. It directed all trial courts, public prosecutors, public attorneys, private practitioners, and other individuals involved to enforce the accused's rights to bail and speedy trial in order to decongest holding jails and humanize the conditions of detainees. The Guidelines reiterate the release of prisoners who have been detained for a period at least equal to the minimum of the penalty for the offense charged against them. To ensure the presence of parties and witnesses, the guidelines also allow the use of electronic mails or mobile phones for the efficient service of subpoenas and notices.


The recent pandemic led Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) in Almonte v. People, G.R. No. 252117, July 28, 2020, to petition the Philippine Supreme Court for their provisional liberty. Their continued stay in congested jails, especially the elderly, sick, and pregnant, makes them the most vulnerable to be infected with the COVID-19 virus. Their petitions were treated as applications for bail or recognizance and were referred to the respective courts where their cases are pending for disposition with the utmost dispatch.


Even before the Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) lodged their petitions, the Philippine Supreme Court had anticipated the implications of the lockdown due to COVID and ensured that the courts were operational to hear urgent matters, including those related to bail. To expedite the release of PDLs in the height of the pandemic, the Philippine Supreme Court issued circulars: (1) allowing the electronic filing of applications for bail and granting trial court judges a wider latitude of discretion for a lowered bail amount effective during the period of the present public health emergency, (2) sanctioning the electronic transmission of bail application approvals and directing the consequent release order to be issued within the same day to the proper law enforcement authority or detention facility to enable the release of the accused, and (3) expanding the efficacy of electronic filing of criminal complaints and information, together with bail applications, to keep up with the executive determination of the need to extend the period of the enhanced community quarantine in critical regions of the country.[2] It was also during the pandemic that the Philippine Supreme Court ordered the pilot testing of videoconference hearings on urgent matters in criminal cases, including bail applications, in critical regions where the risk of viral transmission is high.[3] The Philippine Supreme Court also authorized the grant of reduced bail and recognizance to indigent Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) pending the continuation of the proceedings and the resolution of their cases.[4] Furthermore, the Office of the Court Administrator also reminded judges nationwide to immediately conduct an inventory of criminal cases to determine if these could be covered by the Decongestion Guidelines and to act motu proprio on cases of Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) who are detained for a period equivalent to the minimum penalty. If warranted, judges are advised to release the PDLs on recognizance with the safeguards that they can be located while the trial is ongoing. In the latest issuance, the Philippine Supreme Court directed not only Executive Judges but also presiding judges in all courts to conduct quarterly jail visitations. It highlighted the importance of jail visitation to determine the actual conditions of PDLs and the detention facilities. This will aid in the formulation of policies for more effective jail management and ensure the humane safekeeping of PDLs.[5] These are just some of the interventions that would address jail congestion.


In one forum, our Department of Justice announced that the government is exploring "outside-of-the-box" solutions to generate creative and unusual ideas within the bounds of the law to address the jail congestion problem. Just recently, a high-level consultation summit with the participation of different stakeholders from the three branches of the Philippine government was conducted for a comprehensive analysis of the congestion problem and, ultimately, to craft long-term solutions to ease overcrowding in jails. Indeed, the congestion problem should be addressed by all pillars of the criminal justice system, working together to reduce admissions in jail and expedite and increase the release of Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs), particularly those awaiting trial. Digitization and constant periodic review of PDL records all over the country could speed up the process of analyzing the problem. Finding solutions to the congestion problem will ensure that jails become more humane and safe for effective and efficient rehabilitation and reformation of PDLs in the Philippines.


[2] A.C. No. 33-2020 and AC No. 34-2020.

[3] A.C. No. 37-2020.

[4] AC No. 38-2020.

[5] A.M. 07-03-02 SC or the New Guidelines on Jail Visitation and Inspection.