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Dignity Defined

Did our jails fail with congestion and space problems? Is there hope for the future of those behind bars?  Focus Feature unmasks the state of our jails


Text and videos by Johannes L. Chua
Photos by Romeo Mariano

First things first. Once you commit a crime, you don’t go directly to a jail—the kind of jail that you see in TV or films where gang wars, extreme violence, cruel treatment or worse, sexual assault can happen. There is a judicial process to follow—albeit sometimes rolling on slow wheels—that must be observed.

Second, there are different government agencies involved when you talk about jails. Once a person who has committed a crime is waiting for his sentence, the Department of Interior and Local Government’s (DILG) Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) will keep him in “custody.” Under the eyes of the law, one is still considered innocent until proven guilty.

Once a person is convicted with the crime and sentenced to years in prison, it is only the time when the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Corrections takes over. This is where the infamous Bilibid comes into picture. Provincial governments also manage jails such as the controversial one in Leyte where a Mayor was shot recently.

Third, there is a wide misconception about jails and the person who is on the other side of the steel bars. Do you feel fully comfortable once you know that you are speaking to a person who has served jail time? Do you want to hire that person? Will you even trust him with your valuables?

There is a social stigma attached to a person who has endured jail time—even though he was just wrongly accused, did a petty crime, or was “forced” out of a dire circumstance to steal a can of milk to feed his sick baby.

Lastly, the social stigma also extends to the media. How many shows or films have portrayed jails as the dirtiest, most congested, rat-infested piece of real estate in the world? There is the classic “Mayor” who bullies the newbie. And there is the “Warden,” the jail god who has an incessant appetite for vices.

Just a few months ago, various stories appeared in international news websites which claim that “jail overcrowding seems to be the predictable effect of the President’s war on drugs.”

The accompanying photos—inmates sleeping over each other on stairs, inmates packed like human sardines in a corner, of inmates sleeping in stacked cardboards—have captions such as “harrowing,” “like Dante’s Inferno” and “nightmarish.”

The agony of waiting is aggravated by “dirty tap water, dingy toilets, substandard meals, gang war, poorly trained guards and prison administrators, among others.” The United Nations Human Rights Commission years back took note of “chronic prison overcrowding” stating that the penal system in the Philippines failed in its mandate to rehabilitate the inmates. A complementary report even stated that the penal system here is a “throwback to the 18th century that treated prisoners as animals unfit to renew themselves and rejoin society.”

But what is the real story behind this? Is it true that the President’s all-out war against illegal drugs gave rise to overcrowded jails? What is the true state of our jails?

Knowing the Problem

The crowded jail photos circulating in international news websites was shot in Quezon City Jail, near the Kamuning area.

Managed by the BJMP, its original holding capacity is just for 800 inmates. When Manila Bulletin visited one afternoon, the inmate count was 3,300 plus. One time, it even held 4,000 plus bodies forcing the jail officers to utilize the stairs and basketball court as open-air sleeping spaces.

The BJMP acknowledges this problem, something which is not lost on Xavier Solda, the agency’s Community Relations Officer. According to him, the government is not turning a blind eye on this problem, citing the fact that “there are enormous challenges as inmate population keeps a steady rise even though the infrastructure remains the same.”

“Inmate population is 536 percent too much for our facilities to accommodate. As such, BJMP is persistent in its construction and renovation of jail buildings and other necessary structures. Last year, 31 construction jail projects were completed. But many more facilities await their turn. Under the mercy of our meager means,” he added.

The Manila Bulletin team saw this reality when it went around jails in the metro. The QC Jail in Kamuning is for male inmates, while the one for females located inside Camp Karingal currently has 949 inmates. Its original capacity? It is only ideal for 100!


All over the country, the BJMP is aware of the dearth of space in jails, which gives rise to a myriad of problems.

“With the lack of space, there is a higher security risk, health risk and a host of other problems,” said Solda. “But the BJMP is doing its best to make life comfortable for the inmates. People are not aware that our agency acts only as a ‘custodian’ of inmates. We have to make sure that they are fed well, safe, clean, and that they can make the most of their time in our jails.”

“Making life comfortable” for the inmates is hard to imagine if you are standing on top of the stairs looking down on over a thousand bodies in yellow shirts waving at you, calling your attention, or asking for some barya.

But when they are gathered for a choreographed dance to a song they call Galaw-Galaw (with lyrics Galaw-galaw nang ‘di pumanaw/ Paa’y igalaw ninyo nang ‘di malumpo), the dancers give a happy performance—like they are performing it for a school project. The only difference is that they don’t go back to their respective homes after it is done.

Creating Solutions

Solda enumerates the various challenges encountered by the BJMP such as the infrastructure, the measly food budget for each inmate, some gang-related violence—but not to the extent that films have portrayed jail violence. He laments however that the slow wheel of justice has greatly contributed to the rise of jail population.

In QC Jail, for example, there are inmates who have waited for more than 10 years for the outcome of their cases which are plagued by various delaying reasons.

For J/Insp Miraluna Sanchez, the Assistant Warden of the QC City Jail for Women, aside from the delay in delivering verdicts to the inmates (who, by the way, they now call as “residents”), their daily intake is significantly higher than their “release.”

“We would take in, for example, 10 residents today, but we only transferred two outside,” said Sanchez. “But no matter what, we ensure that they are given the right treatment. We interview them why they were caught, and most of them are involved in drugs.”

The unwavering anti-drug campaign of President Duterte is effective when you ask the BJMP officers. All of them have said that there was a spike in drug-related arrests which confirms the President’s revelation that drug abuse is rampant. While all of them are supportive of the President’s agenda, some of them mentioned the need to address the poverty situation.

According to Solda, majority of the inmates are not hardened criminals out to destroy lives.

“Poverty has pushed them to the limits and selling illegal drugs has become an unwelcome livelihood to them… this is a wake-up call to the need to provide decent livelihood and opportunities to disadvantaged members of society.”

Giving New Hope

It turns out that the BJMP has an “Inmates Welfare and Development Program”—and this is not usually given attention by the mainstream media who are only interested in portraying jails as “hell on earth.”

“Tales of advances in jail management are drowned by the noise of reported poor jail conditions. While these happen, they are not entirely true. They are often bloated illustrations of facts. The public must know the truth,” said Solda.

Aside from providing the inmates’ basic needs, health services and paralegal services are given for free. (Sanchez even revealed that they provide for free childbirth service to pregnant inmates!)

“There is a provision of assistance and close monitoring of inmates’ cases for the speedy disposition of their cases which will hopefully result to the decongestion of jails,” Solda said. “Inmates also attend an Alternative Learning System and a Therapeutic Community Modality Program which provide guidance and counselling to enhance their psychosocial skills.”


Aside from physical fitness (there’s a gym for men), choreographed dancing is encouraged to minimize stress and promote camaraderie. But one thing that the BJMP is proud of is its Livelihood Programs.

“The program teaches inmates new livelihood skills which they can learn inside the jail and later on utilize them when they are reintegrated back to the society,” said Solda.

Aside from developing work values and providing dignity, inmates also get to earn from it (Read: Bread Winner).

The women inmates are proud of their bags, rags and bead works. They learn that these are selling well in an expo which showcased their products. The men, on the other hand, are busy creating parols for the coming Christmas, which will soon be sold out.

As they raise the products of their patience, they give a proud smile. Amidst the controlled chaos, inside the jail with walls that seem to rise to the skies, one can feel their dignity—restored for a moment—in a society that has deprived them of that.


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  • Harper

    Hard to feel sorry for people who do it to themselves. Do the crime do the time. . So why is the judicial system so inept that it takes decade to trial a case….