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Manila frees 234 inmates in bid to decongest its prison system

PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

THE PHILIPPINES’ Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) on Thursday released 234 inmates from seven prisons who had served their sentences.

“Today, you are no longer persons deprived of liberty, but you are free,” national prison officer-in-charge Gregorio Pio P. Catapang told inmates in Filipino during ceremonies streamed live on Facebook. “Every day I see a change in the inmates, and I intend to continue reforming BuCor.”

The bureau freed 128 prisoners from the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City near the capital, 47 from the Davao Prison and Penal Farm in the country’s south, 16 from San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm in Zamboanga City and 12 from the Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm in Occidental Mindoro.

Seven prisoners from the Leyte Regional Prison, three 3 from Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Palawan and 21 from the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City were also freed, according to a list sent to reporters.

Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla told the same event he seeks to release 5,000 inmates by June.

Last month, he told the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council there are efforts to decongest the country’s jails. He also wants to “change the culture” of the local justice system, which he said was prone to delays.

“We hope that what we are doing here at BuCor will be meaningful since those imprisoned should have the hope to be free and rejoin our society,” Mr. Remulla said in mixed English and Filipino.

The DoJ was studying the possible “supervised release” of inmates who are 65 years and older, he said, adding that crimes committed under the age group have decreased.

The government has released more than 700 inmates in the past two months.

Mr. Remulla earlier said the national penitentiary, which was designed to house 6,000 prisoners, had 17,000 inmates.

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

Many of the country’s jails fail to meet the UN’s minimum standards given inadequate food, poor nutrition and unsanitary conditions, according to Human Rights Watch.

The DoJ plans to build a P2.5-billion “world-class” maximum security facility in the town of Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro, the Justice chief said in August.

It also plans to move the national penitentiary’s minimum security facility to Nueva Ecija in northern Philippines.

Fides M. Lim, a convenor of Kapatid, a support group for political prisoners, earlier said the government should stop its deadly drug war if it wants to decongest its jails.

The Philippine Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly flagged the worsening congestion in the country’s jails, more recently spurred by the arrests of suspects in ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s war on drugs that has killed thousands. — John Victor D. Ordoñez