A Call for Compassion

A Call for Compassion
“I was imprisoned and you visited me.” Mt. 25:36

The COVID-19 global pandemic has adversely affected practically all the people in the world, rich and poor alike, regardless of race and creed. There is really a need for a united and concerted effort to curb this menace.

They say that critical times call for equally critical and drastic solutions. While we truly appreciate the government in its efforts in battling this pandemic, we wish to air the following concerns:

1. On the matter of the strict implementation of the ECQ rules:

State authorities have declared that they will be very strict in the implementation of the rules regarding the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in the entire country, with violators being severely dealt with – with no chance for these to explain their side, and that they will just be apprehended, and detained with corresponding criminal charges filed against them in court.

While this hardline stance may somehow deter people from going out of their homes and venturing into the streets, we are concerned that this may pose more problems than solutions, mainly because of the big possibility that those who will be caught belong to the poor and indigent sector.

In certain areas we have learned, for instance, that many alleged ECQ violators were rounded up and brought to a sports complex where physical and social distancing was unfortunately not properly observed. We were informed that the detainees are not provided with food and water. The only way that they can be released is by posting bail with the courts for their temporary liberty. But where will they get the money to post bail, when these are mostly the poor? And since they are unable to bail themselves out, they eventually land in jail, thereby further contributing to the congestion in our prisons and exposure to the COVID-19 virus and other illnesses. But is this not the very purpose of the ECQ, i.e., to prevent the spread of the COVID virus through social distancing?

We are very concerned about the recent fatal shooting of an ex-soldier, who was said to have mental problems, after he allegedly tried to pull out a gun after being confronted by a police officer for violating quarantine rules. Even as we call for an in-depth investigation into this matter, we would like to appeal to our law enforcers to always exercise maximum tolerance and prudence in the performance of their duties especially during these troubled times.

2. On the matter of the transfer of PDLs with COVID-19 to the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa:

We are deeply concerned about the report that the COVID positive female PDLs of the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) were ordered transferred to the New Bilibid Prisons – Medium Security Camp, an all-male facility. We believe that transferring female PDLs to this male camp is not advisable. At present, there are more than 7,000 inmates in this camp and this transfer will put other PDLs and even the prison officials and personnel in great jeopardy. Also, aside from PDLs, there are many residents in the area near the facility and the probability of transmission is very likely.

3. On the matter of moves calling for the release of PDL’s with minor cases to help in jail decongestion:

We join the call from other cause-oriented human rights groups for the expeditious release of vulnerable inmates who are ill, old, as well as the youth in conflict with law, and low-risk offenders. We all know the general condition in our country’s detention facilities (cramped, overly-congested and mostly unkempt) hence the probability that one will get infected and in turn infect other fellow detainees as well as the jail personnel manning the facilities, is very high. We call on the jail and prison authorities to implement this with great prudence, always taking into consideration the best interest of all PDLs.

Allow us then to make the following recommendations:

1. We beg the police to observe the proper rules of engagement and show utmost respect for the human rights of those under investigation and/or accused persons under our laws. Detainees should be provided with basic needs, e.g., food and potable water, a decent sleeping gear and be detained in a place where proper physical and social distancing can be observed. A good number may be turned over to their respective barangay officials who will then check the individual stories of those arrested. Alternatives to detention should be considered, such as education of the violators and community service upon their release.

2. We propose that in releasing qualified PDLs to decongest our jails and prisons, priority should be given to the elderly, those who are sick, the youth, as well as those existing PDLs who were earlier granted release through the benefits of the good conduct time allowances (GCTA), but were subsequently ordered re-arrested; and finally those who are already qualified for Executive Clemency and favorably recommended by the Board of Pardons and Parole.

Needless to say, we also ask that support services be given to those who will be released, like those national prisoners who will have to travel back to their provinces. This can be in the form of transport services and inclusion in the Pantawid Buhay program of the government.

3. Finally as to the housing of COVID-19 positive PDLs, we strongly recommend that they be placed in medical facilities where their needs can be attended to properly, and not in penal institutions where the possibility of transmitting the virus to other detainees and correctional personnel is very high. With the terrible congestion in our penal institutions, the transmission to other inmates is very high and it will be very catastrophic. We call for the urgent testing for correctional employees, and all PDLs who are under investigation or monitoring (PUIs and PUMs), and the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) for our correctional front liners and medical teams. We also urge the Inter Agency Task Force (IATF) on COVID response to strictly mandate observance of protocols on isolation of COVID patients, PUIs and PUMs, testing and proper treatment for the said patients.

At the outset we enjoin everyone to cooperate and observe all the reasonable measures laid down by our civil authorities to combat this menace. Let us continue to pray for and honor our frontlines, especially the medical workers, law enforcers, jail and prison officials and personnel, for their noble efforts and sacrifices. We include in our prayers those who are still battling with the disease, that they may be healed soon.

Rest assured that the Church is always ready to work hand in hand with the State to curb this pandemic and mitigate its adverse effects on our populace. May God bless us and deliver us all through these tough times!

Legazpi City, 30 April 2020

+ Joel Z. Baylon, D.D.
Bishop of Legazpi
Chairman, CBCP-Episcopal Commission on Prison Pastoral Care (CBCP-ECPPC)