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Philippines: saving lives in Antipolo City Jail

17-03-2010 Feature

Overcrowding is a menace to health in many prisons in the Philippines. Yet something can be done – as one determined warden, armed with support from her hierarchy and from the ICRC, has shown. The ICRC’s Allison Lopez reports.

© Courtesy of Antipolo City Jail. 
Supt. Carolina Borrinaga, wardress of the Antipolo City Jail. 

© Courtesy of Antipolo City Jail. 
X-ray being taken of a detainee suspected to be suffering from TB. 


In June 2009, wearing her grey uniform and a cheerful smile, Superintendent Carolina Borrinaga started her new posting at the City Jail in Antipolo , a city some 30 kilometres east of the capital, Manila.

But Ms. Borrinaga’s smile slowly faded. When she began her rounds, she discovered sick inmates along the corridors and in dark corners of their cells. Hazardous smoke from burning firewood filled the air. The prisoners were unkempt and unreceptive to their new guardian.

" When I first arrived in Antipolo, my heart was breaking. There were many ill inmates. I'm used to jails – I used to inspect them – but this one was extraordinary because it was so overpopulated, " she says, her voice cracking.

Overcrowding remains a serious concern for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), which has administrative control over the country's 1,132 city, district and municipal jails. According to the Bureau, the jail population rose from about 35,000 prisoners in 2000 to more than 58,000 in August 2009.

 High mortality rate  

Antipolo City Jail, which was built to hold 200 inmates, according to international standards, had nearly 800. But unlike other jails, the jail also had an alarming mortality rate that prompted the Bureau to assign Carolina Borrinaga there. A later evaluation showed that about 100 prisoners had ailments ranging from tuberculosis to unattended gunshot wounds.

The situation was urgent – her most challenging assignment, as she said later. In a meeting with the mayor of Antipolo and the ICRC, Ms. Borrinaga asked for help in providing medical assistance to the prisoners and renovating the detention facility.

The response was swift and effective, thanks to good coordination:. the jail authorities established lists of sick inmates and obtained permits from the court for their transfer, the local government provided doctors, and the ICRC paid for X-rays, other diagnostic tests, and certain medicines.

At the same time, Ms. Borrinaga drew on lessons she had learned from being a member of three working groups of the " Call for Action " process launched by the ICRC in 2007 and endorsed by the jail management bureau.

 Call for concerted action  

The Call for Action process aims to coordinate efforts of the executive, legislative and judicial authorities to identify and address both the causes of jail congestion and their consequences on inmates’ health and living conditions.

Jean-Daniel Tauxe, head of the ICRC delegation in the Philippines, says: " The ICRC saw the need to work with the authorities to tackle the situation in jails, focusing on three main concerns: upgrading penal facilities, tuberculosis management in jails and the need to improve the criminal justice process for inmates. The Call for Action is a pilot project that began here, but we believe it may be replicated in other countries. "

On 17 March 2010, top officials from Philippine agencies like the BJMP, Department of Interior and Local Government, Department of Health, Congress and Supreme Court gathered at the " Call for Action " national conference to present the accomplishments of these initiatives, and to outline plans for future activities.

" These problems have long been identified but it's a matter of putting solutions into action,” says Carolina Borrinaga. “The Call for Action process helped us refocus our energy and resources, and reminded us that our mandate is not only safekeeping but development as well. "

 Implementing changes  

Armed with inputs from the " Call for Action " , and with full support of the Bureau, Ms. Borrinaga used Antipolo City Jail as a test site. She began overhauling the jail facility by purchasing a gas stove to eliminate smoke from firewood and by designating areas for drying clothes and smoking.

" She prioritized the inmates'health and she's very particular on hygiene. She's very active and dedicated in fixing the jail's problems, " comments Juan Perfecto Palma, an ICRC nurse who has worked closely with the superintendent.

By the end of 2009, the wardress had made good on her promise to alleviate overcrowding with the inauguration of an annexe. This extension, built through a local prison ministries group with support from the ICRC, meets international standards on conditions of detention. Around 120 inmates are held there in greater comfort.

The transformation of the jail became more than just a physical facelift as the inmates—and their guards – started raising their self-esteem and taking responsibility for themselves.

" I tell them to value themselves. You leave your cases to the judge but how about you? How do you prepare for your life outside jail? " Ms. Borrinaga says.

 Second chance  

Inmates, she insists, deserve to be treated humanely and given a chance to live decently even behind bars.

" The y are also human; they only live once. Those who have been there for years tell me it's the first time they have experienced this. Their stay in jail is an opportunity for them to change their lives. I just tell them, let this be a wake-up call for you, " she remarks.

ICRC nurse Palma says: " Among the detention facilities I've been to, Antipolo is now one of the more progressive ones. We realize that the changes really depend on the dedication of the jail's management and the full commitment of the detaining authority. "

Carolina Borrinaga believes she herself has been changed by her stint at Antipolo. "Touching the lives of these people also made me a better person. There are so many things you can do to help a lot of people. They just need someone to guide them," she says.

Read more on the ICRC’s work for prisoners in the Philippines