Human rights lawyers asked SC to study release of qualified prisoners amid the threat of spreading COVID-19 in jails

Amid the threat of the spread of the coronavirus disease in jails, a group of human right lawyers has urged the Supreme Court to summon an inter-agency coordinating body to look into requests for the release of qualified prisoners.

The Free Legal Assistance Group, in a letter to Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta Wednesday, urged the top magistrate to convene the Justice Sector Coordinating Council (JSCC) which he chairs.

“With the current COVID-19 pandemic, we are concerned that jail facilities built for a specific number but now populated by substantially more than what they were designed for may result in ‘cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment’ in violation of Art. III, section 19(1) of the 1987 Constitution,” FLAG said.

“…[W]e are of the opinion that a case-to-case or court-to-court solution, while technically correct, might be too burdensome and might not be the most effective remedy,” it added.

The group suggested that the JSCC, composed of all attached offices of the judiciary – Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior and Local Government – could come out with an interim policy on jail decongestion which will consider a nationwide profile of inmates, the nature of their cases, their personal health status and special circumstances that will justify early release or humanitarian treatment.

FLAG said this may be done through previously-established justice zones in several cities across the country, which could initially assess the profile of detainees and their respective circumstances.

Justice zones have been launched in Quezon City, Cebu City, Davao, Angeles, Bacolod and Naga since the JSCC program started in 2014.

In the absence of justice zones, FLAG said local offices of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, the Bureau of Corrections, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Executive Judge “may work together toward this end.”

FLAG also suggested that the JSCC consult with stakeholders such as the families of inmates in order to come up with a humane, helpful and humanitarian approach to jail decongestion and treatment of prisoners.

The letter was signed by FLAG National Chair Jose Manuel Diokno and Metro Manila Regional Coordinator Theodore Te, and was sent by email.

Aside from FLAG, various groups such as Karapatan, Kapatid and Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (SELDA) have called for the release of sick and elderly prisoners who are most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

Makabayan lawmakers and business sector-backed Judicial Reform Initiative have also sent their own letters to the Supreme Court.

The high court is set to tackle on Friday a petition filed by 22 inmates seeking their release on humanitarian grounds.

The DOJ is also studying pleas to release inmates. (Edited from an article written by Mike Navallo)

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