Proactive, not reactive

Former Vice President

When I was still mayor of Makati, then Interior Secretary Angelo de los Reyes came to my office to seek my support for a plan to build a single facility to house all Metro Manila detainees. This was around 2005, but Secretary Reyes and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) were thinking ahead.

A 96-hectare property was identified as the site, with P300 million estimated as initial allocation for its construction. It would house detainees from all Metro Manila jails, as well the offices of the BJMP. The site would also have a hospital, school, lodging facilities for visitors, livelihood centers, and a farm to be tended by the detainees.

There were blueprints for the facility. Bills were also filed in Congress supporting the creation of the jail facility and allocating the needed funds.

At that time, the BJMP said Metro Manila’s jails could only accommodate 5,300 detainees, but the population stood at over 20,000. Our jails were already congested, they said. In Makati, our local jail at that time could accommodate around 50 detainees but we already had 300.

I expressed support for the plan and even suggested that the Metro mayors provide counterpart funding for the project.

Unfortunately, I never heard anything about the proposed facility after that meeting. For all intents and purposes, the plan is as good as dead. Meanwhile, the problem of jail congestion has worsened over the years.

A 2017 Commission on Audit (COA) report on the BJMP said the jail population is now at a staggering 146,302 detainees. Our jail facilities can only accommodate 20,653 detainees. Yet, we have not seen or heard of any initiative on the part of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), the mother agency of the BJMP, to address this issue.

And every year, we hear reports of detainees dying from suffocation and other illnesses attributed to the inhumane conditions in these facilities.

This brings me to one of my pet peeves as a public official: our governance is reactive, not proactive.

Governments have never been bereft of good-intentioned plans. You even have some officials who are forward-looking, like the late Angie Reyes and the BJMP personnel who conceptualized and planned the integrated jail facility. Funds have always been available. The chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Loren Legarda, even recently reminded jail officials that Congress has been regularly setting aside funds to address congestion, and provide food, medicine, and other needs of detainees and inmates. But the problem continues to fester.

This year, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), an agency under the Department of Justice (DOJ), has an operational budget of P2.019 billion to cover custody and safekeeping programs and the construction of buildings in six regional jail facilities.

The BJMP has a budget of P13.484 billion this year for safekeeping and development and for the management of all district, city, and municipal jails.

I strongly feel that congestion has worsened over the years due in large part to the inability of concerned government agencies to anticipate future problems and plan accordingly. Legislators have been asking jail authorities to include the budget to build bigger facilities in their yearly budget requests. But every year, they seem to be content asking for fund augmentation. We have bureaucrats who do not have a sense of urgency.

How do we start resolving congestion? I recall there was a proposal to transfer the National Penitentiary in Muntinlupa outside Metro Manila. If that pushes through, the compound can be converted into a facility for Metro Manila’s detainees.

But the solution goes beyond building bigger jails. We must also institute reforms in the administration of justice.

For example, defendants charged with light offenses can be released on recognizance to their lawyers. They can be placed on probation or made to undergo community service instead of imprisonment. We should have night courts, and frequent “courts on wheels.” As a lawyer and trial practitioner, I have encountered plenty of instances where defendants are sentenced after having served more than the mandated period behind bars. More heartbreaking are those who have been falsely accused, months if not years wasted in detention centers with hardened criminals.

It would be futile to lament at this stage how things would have been different had the plans to address jail congestion, and a host of problems now bedeviling Metro residents, been implemented early on and with a sense of urgency. Our authorities should put an end to a culture where problems are viewed as minor irritants at the beginning, refusing to look at possible consequences 10 to 20 years hence, and then frantically searching for patchwork solutions when the minor problem becomes a full-blown crisis.

It is worth repeating: Our governance should be proactive, not reactive.

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