Philippines inmates living in 'hell on earth' in overcrowded jails

Manila’s already overcrowded jails are spilling over as a result of the President Rodrigo Duterte's crackdown on crime.
Inmates sleeping at the open basketball court inside the Quezon City jail in Manila on July 21, 2016.
Inmates sleeping at the open basketball court inside the Quezon City jail in Manila on July 21, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Erwin Escalante has been in jail for so long he's stopped caring about whether he's ever getting out.

He was only 28 when he was arrested, accused of killing a politician's kin. Now, he is 43, and his case is still pending in court.

" I've been here for so long, I've already lost interest in my case," he said.

Prison is home now, and he is at peace with that.

The jails of the Philippines are teeming with inmates like Escalante. Too poor to afford bail and with courts moving at a glacial pace, they are packed in.

The air is stale, and the sour smell of sweat and body odour, and stench of rotting garbage from a nearby canal drift everywhere.

In the dry months, the jail becomes an oven. A power outage in the middle of summer can mean death. Just this month, before the rains came, three inmates died of heatstroke when a power failure knocked out the few electric fans that were still working

President Rodrigo Duterte's war on crime is sending even more people to these crowded jails, straining the nation's prison system near its breaking point.

The jail that Escalante is in houses about 3,950 inmates and is the only one in Quezon City, metropolitan Manila's most populous city. It was built six decades ago to hold just 800.

Superintendent Randel Latoza, the warden said tithas been receiving 30 to 40 inmates a day since Mr Duterte took office on June 30, a 6.7 per cent increase, and has been releasing only 20 a day.

With so many inmates and so little space, over 160 inmates are crammed in each 57 sq m cell. Hundreds of inmates share a single toilet.

At night, about a thousand lie, often without shirts, on the concrete floor of an open courtyard, with sacks for mattresses. Thousands more sleep on every little space they can find: on staircases, underneath beds and on hammocks made out of old blankets.

When it rains and the courtyard gets wet, most sleep sitting down.

Inmates often suffer from tuberculosis, diarrhoea and skin diseases.

Mayor Herbert Bautista has donated a 3ha property for a new prison to take the load off the Quezon City's only jail. But the wait may take a few more years. Prisons and jails are not exactly a top priority for the government.

Superintendent Latoza says the prevailing opinion among Filipinos is that the men being held in the country's jails and prisons may be living in what amounts to hell on earth. A visit to the Quezon City jail will make one understand.