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‘Over-serving’ prisoners must be released

AS part of his peace efforts with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CCP) and its military arm, the New People’s Army, President Duterte has approved the release of 20 political prisoners. Their release is expected before December 26, which is the 48th anniversary of the CPP. Among those to be released are “elderly and sickly prisoners” for humanitarian reasons, Secretary Silvestre Bello, chairman of the government peace panel, said.

Last month, the Supreme Court, granting a habeas corpus petition, ordered the release from prison of businessman Rolito Go who had already served 20 years of his 40-year prison sentence for the road-rage killing of a student in 1991.

One group of prisoners who truly deserve to be released from prison, according to Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza, are the thousands of inmates who have already “over-served” their prison sentences but continue to languish in jail because of the slow pace of the country’s justice system.

Many inmates who were supposed to serve short sentences end up being imprisoned for extended periods because they do not have lawyers to look after their cases. “This is one of the reasons we are absolutely against the death penalty,” the congressman said. “Because of our defective and disjointed criminal justice system, only the poor who cannot afford lawyers will be sentenced to death.”

Atienza urged President Duterte to order the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology to conduct a review of the cases of inmates in all jails in the country. The President, we might add, may also direct the bureau to look into the condition of jails which are severely overcrowded and lack the most basic needs for decent human life. The whole world became aware of this last week when one of the winning photos of the year of Agence France Presse revealed shocking conditions of prisoners sleeping packed together on the concrete floor and on the steps of stairs for lack of space in the Quezon City jail.

Section 19, Article III, of the Constitution, provides: “The employment of physical, psychological, or degrading punishment against any prisoner or detainee or the use of substandard or inadequate penal facilities under subhuman conditions shall be dealt with by law.”

It may take some time before prison conditions are substantially improved in the country but, as Congressman Atienza has pointed out, those prisoners who have actually over-served their sentences should be released. Even more than political prisoners, those poor and old prisoners who remain in jail because they are too poor to have lawyers defend their rights need help and action on their cases.

It is a long-standing tradition for the President to grant clemency – pardon or parole – to old, infirm, or gravely ill prisoners at this time of the year. A review of the cases of many prisoners should reveal who should now be released by the President this Christmas or New Year’s Day.