Philippines: working towards health and dignity in overcrowded places of detention

21-04-2010 Interview

Throughout decades of internal armed conflicts in the Philippines, the ICRC has been visiting persons deprived of liberty and assisting people in need. In cooperation with the national authorities, the ICRC has launched the "Call for Action" programme to address legal and procedural problems leading to overcrowding in jails, concerns regarding inmate health, in particular the spread of tuberculosis, and poor living conditions.


Jean-Daniel Tauxe, head of the ICRC delegation in the Philippines  
     Through this process, the ICRC aims to mobilize concerned government agencies to respond to humanitarian issues observed in jails throughout the country. Jean-Daniel Tauxe, head of the ICRC delegation in the Philippines explains the objectives of the organization's latest mobilization efforts.  

 Knowing that overcrowding in detention facilities is a global problem, what makes the case of the Philippines special?  

Overcrowding is a very serious problem in the Philippines, where some detention facilities already exceed their capacity seven times. According to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), one of the executive authorities in charge, the jail population is rising about 2.9 per cent annually. If inmates have access to open air, their situation is better, but often security considerations lead to restricted outdoor access.

In order to tackle the problem of overcrowding, its underlying causes and its effects need to be understood. For example, we have noticed that due to the complexity of the criminal justice system, people can remain in detention without being sentenced beyond their maximum penalty term. This aggravates the overcrowding, which affects inmates'living conditions and access to basic services, such as water, sanitation and health care. While improvement in material conditions is important, we need to bring judicial, legislative and executive stakeholders on board to tackle underlying issues.

 What is new about ICRC's Call for Action process in the Philippines?  

It allows us to complement ICRC's detention visits by acting as a facilitator between national stakeholders in bringing structural changes for the benefit of all inmates. For decades in the Philippines, we have had unrestricted access to persons detained in relation to internal armed conflicts. While constant dialogue and actions taken addressed the immediate individual needs of inmates, the core problem of jail congestion remained unresolved.

In 2007, we launched the Call for Action to achieve nationwide changes in places of detention. To date, we have seen impressive progress in pilot sites and were positively surprised by the response we received. The " Call " comes from the ICRC; it is the BJMP as well as other concerned stak eholders who take action to tackle the issue.

I should say that the achievements to date are remarkable, given the time frame and the number of agencies involved.

 How does this process work?  

Bringing together influential members of the executive, legislative and judiciary is a key mechanism of the Call for Action process. The ICRC is acting as a facilitator in three " working groups " , focusing on the three main concerns of inmates: upgrading penal facilities, tuberculosis management in jails and the need to improve the criminal justice process for inmates.

A pilot project in the Manila City Jail demonstrated that through information sharing and working together on concrete challenges linked to processing the cases of inmates, we can find solutions. Since September 2009, 250 legal cases were identified by the working group, and 130 were resolved to date. This strategy will expand to other jails this year, and hopefully, continue.

The National Tuberculosis Programme, which is one of the best in the region, was not adequately accessible to inmates in most jails and prisons. With ICRC's support, it has now been fully implemented in seven pilot jails and prisons, involving 30,000 inmates. National coverage is expected to be achieved by 2011 for the Bureau of Corrections and by 2015 by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

Rehabilitation projects, meanwhile, have benefited more than 12,000 detainees in 24 jails. Over 60 BJMP specialists were trained in internationally recognized standards relating to water, sanitation, hygiene and living conditions generally in jails.

 Does Call for Action open new opportunities for the ICRC?  

I believe the " Call for Action " shows how we can find a way of being a more useful organization, rather than point ing fingers at what is wrong with the system. It combines our knowledge and understanding of the environment with the needs of the country.

 How can we ensure the sustainability of the project?  

The engagement of the Philippine authorities in the process has been remarkable. The Executive Secretary of the Philippines followed the project from its very beginning. All the members of the working groups showed outstanding commitment.

We still have to see what the future will bring. Overcrowding is the issue we want to address. The commitment of the BJMP and other stakeholders is the key criterion of success. The ICRC's role as a facilitator is a tool of this process. Without all these elements put together, the project will not work.