Philippines urged to act on jail 'purgatory'

Inmates peeking from their cell inside the Quezon City Jail in Manila.
Inmates peeking from their cell inside the Quezon City Jail in Manila.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Images of hellish conditions at an overcrowded Philippines jail triggered calls Thursday (Aug 4) from lawmakers and rights groups for swift reforms to the penal system which is under strain from an anti-drugs crackdown.

AFP photographs of the Quezon City Jail, where thousands of inmates are forced to sleep on stairs or on cracked cement floors in unimaginable squalor, highlighted the crisis which is worsening under President Rodrigo Duterte's war on crime.

"It's an image straight out of Dante's 'Purgatory'," Human Rights Watch said, referring to the 13th century Italian writer's description of the realm where souls await judgement.

"Hundreds of half-naked men sprawled on the pavement in the sweltering heat, desperately trying to sleep amid the cramped chaos... It's an actual snapshot of horrific overcrowding in the Philippines' jails."

The situation at Quezon City Jail is by no means isolated, the New York-based group added, with many other Filipino jails also failing to meet minimum United Nations standards for nutrition and sanitation.

Duterte was elected by a landslide in May, largely on a pledge to clean up the streets by killing tens of thousands of criminals. Police say 402 drug suspects have been gunned down in the past month.

Thousands more have been detained, doomed for lengthy stints in underfunded and overwhelmed jails.

Describing the images as "terrible", outspoken lawmaker Leila de Lima said she would file a resolution in the upper house Senate calling for a review of the state of detention facilities.

"You can never hope to really implement any worthy programmes to reform inmates if you have such decrepit, overcrowded facilities," she said.

The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology told AFP that 8 billion pesos (US$170 million) was needed to relieve the situation at prisons holding nearly five times their intended capacity.

Even before Duterte's election, the Philippines penal system was ranked as the third most congested in the world, according to the University of London's Institute for Criminal Policy Research.

There are 3,950 inmates at the Quezon City Jail, which was built six decades ago to house 800, and they are forced to engage in a relentless contest for space.

Men take turns to sleep on the cracked cement floor of an open-air basketball court, the steps of staircases, underneath beds and in hammocks made out of old blankets.

Even then, bodies are packed like sardines in a can, with inmates unable to fully stretch out.

The jail's warden Randel Latoza called for decisive action.

"I'm glad people have seen the real conditions and realised what happens to those we send behind bars," he told AFP. "It's time for courts to take action."