By Genalyn Kabiling, October 2, 2020; Manila Bulletin

The government is committed to hasten the release of eligible inmates to decongest the country’s jails amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to presidential spokesman Harry Roque, authorities have continued to review the prison records of persons deprived of liberty if eligible for release on pardon, parole, and other grounds.

Roque made the assurance following an appeal from Kapatid, a group of families and friends of political prisoners, to release more prisoners, particularly the elderly, sick, and minor offenders, to avoid the risk of coronavirus infection inside crowded jails.

“Mayroon din tayong programa sa Board of Pardons and Parole na hangga’t maaari, palalayain na po natin iyong pinakamaraming numero ng mga kuwalipikado na mapalaya na para nga po maibsan iyong siksikan na kundisyon sa ating mga kulungan dahil kung siksikan, wala pong social distancing (We have a program in the Board of Pardons and Parole to release as much as possible a large number of qualified inmates to ease the congestion of our jails because if they are crowded, there is no social distancing),” Roque said during a press briefing in Bataan Thursday.

“‘Yung mga sentensiyado na tinitingnan, pinabibilis iyong proseso ng probation and parole (To the convicts whose records are under review, the process of probation and parole is being hastened),” he added.

For those in local jails managed by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, Roque said the release of eligible inmates is also pursued as part of the decongestion program.

“Doon naman po sa mga DILG (Department of Interior and Local Government) nakikipag-ugnayan po sa mga hukuman nang sa ganoon eh iyong mga kasong mga minor offenses ay kung pupuwede ma-dismiss na at ma-decongest nga po iyong ating mga lokal na kulungan (On the part of the DILG, it is coordinating with the courts to ask if cases with minor offenses can be dismissed to decongest our local jails),” he added.

The BJMP, an attached agency of the DILG, runs the city, municipal, and district jails that detain those awaiting trial or serving light penalties. The Bureau of Corrections, attached to the DOJ, is in charge of prisons for national inmates sentenced to more than three years.

In July, the DILG announced that more than 21,000 inmates have been released since March through bail, plea-bargaining, parole, or probation. The release is part of the steps to decongest crowded jails amid the pandemic.

The Supreme Court issued a circular in April allowing reduced bail and release on own recognizance for poor inmates. The order applies to those still undergoing trial.

To help curb the spread of coronavirus disease in jails, Roque also said authorities have implemented quarantine protocols and built isolation facilities. The isolation centers were established with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, he added.

Roque also said testing efforts have been conducted that helped contain the spread of the coronavirus in the country’s jails.

On Kapatid’s appeal to halt the arrest of quarantine violators as well as political activists, Roque said the government must still enforce the law.

“Pagdating po sa quarantine violators at political arrest, kinakailangan po ipatupad ang batas. Para po doon sa mga political arrests, itigil ninyo po ang laban ninyo sa gobyerno (When it comes to quarantine violators and political arrest, the law must be enforced. On the political arrests, better stop fighting the government),” he said.