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‘Secret cells’ and overcrowded jails

SEN. Paolo “Bam” Aquino has called for a Senate inquiry into the discovery of a “secret cell” inside the Raxabago police station in Tondo, Manila. A team of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) had made an unannounced visit to the police station last Thursday night and found 12 people sitting on the floor in a small space behind the wooden cabinet.

The CHR had acted on reports that the people detained in the “secret cell” had been asked to pay as much as P100,000 in exchange for their freedom. The detainees said they had been held for a week after being arrested on allegations of drugs use or drug trafficking. The police commander was immediately relieved of his position by Manila Police Department chief Senior Supt. Joel Coronel.

The day after the CHR visit, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa defended the police station’s actions. “As long as the prisoners were not tortured or extorted, it’s OK by me,” he said. This moved Sen. Panfilo Lacson, himself a former chief of the PNP, to say he found it “incomprehensible” that Director General Dela Rosa would defend the men behind the “secret cell.”

In the coming inquiry, Senator Aquino said, the Senate will look at the case in relation to the Bill of Rights in the Constitution which expressly prohibits “torture, force, violence, threat, intimidation, or any other means which vitiate free will” and “secret detention places, solitary, incommunicado, and other forms of detention.” Republic Act 9745, the Anti-Torture Act of 2009, also explicitly prohibits “secret detention places where torture may be carried out with impunity.”

The Senate inquiry, however, may find in the course of its inquiry, that beyond these provisions of law and the Constitution, there is a sad reality in the nation’s police detention facilities and prisons. In his visit to the Tondo police station, Director General Dela Rosa said he found its detention facility was already overcrowded to the point that the detainees could no longer sleep well. In fact, he said, ten of the detainees found in the “secret cell” were even thankful that they had not been placed inside the already overcrowded regular prison.

“I pity my men there,” Dela Rosa said. “They were the ones who found ways to maximize the space, to solve the congestion. Legally, they are liable because that is not authorized, but what now? They would force them to stay inside the overcrowded detention cell and die of suffocation?

This problem of overcrowded jails, the Senate will find, is a nationwide one. The Tondo police incident has merely brought it out into the open. The Tondo police solution was evidently illegal, unconstitutional even. But what should they have done under the circumstances?

We thus welcome the Senate inquiry, not only because of the issues of illegality and unconstitutionality in the Tondo police station incident, but more so because it should draw attention to the national problem of overcrowded jails and, hopefully, move the officials concerned in both Congress and the Executive Department to take corrective action.