Justice Secretary Leila de Lima gave a deadline for the inmates at the New Bilibid Prison to turn in their secret hoard of weapons, drugs, cellphones and other contraband by last Sunday. Drop boxes were placed at different places in the facility for the purpose.
When the boxes were opened on Monday, they yielded an assortment of weaponry: a 30-gauge shotgun, five pistols, 14 improvised shotguns and close to 300 fan knives and other bladed weapons.
The inmates also gave up about 60 drug paraphernalia and 350 mobile phones.
Yet, Secretary De Lima is not impressed. She said her “gut feel” tells her that the inmates had not surrendered all their cache of contraband.
No one said reforming the country’s premier penitentiary will be a cakewalk. The secretary herself admitted that she was up against dark, powerful forces that run Bilibid like it was their kingdom.
It is a realm where the more privileged inmates live in air-conditioned quarters with home theaters, jacuzzis and Internet connection. They traffic in drugs, guns and women. The rest of the prison population is packed in hothouses masquerading as cells, where the risk of getting killed in a gang riot is very real.
Dismantling this invisible government will be the biggest challenge for Secretary de Lima. The question is, is she up to it?
The secretary has created the Bureau of Corrections Clean-Up Oversight Team and gave it four months to do its job.
Four months is not a realistic time frame for such a daunting task. At best, it will be a patch-up job, since the team will be under tremendous pressure to produce results in so short a time.
What needs to be done is to get to the very root of the Bilibid problem, something that should have been done a long time ago.
Overcrowding has always been the overriding issue. Bilibid was built in 1936 to house no more than 9,000 inmates. Today the number has more than doubled, with about 23,000 prisoners crammed inside the facility.
Let us hark back to an article on the Preda (People’s Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance) website, “The Condition of Philippine Prisons and Jails.”
“Herding individuals in cramped spaces is cruel, inhuman, ill, degrading, and unjust punishment,” the article noted. “Overcrowding is dangerous to health and to human life. It breeds diseases, breaks down discipline and exacerbates tensions. Having to fight for air and space 24 hours a day make prison, in the words of inmates, a living death.”
There were attempts to improve conditions in Bilibid, but none of them produced palpable results because the problem of congestion was never fully addressed.
A solution could finally loom with the Bureau of Corrections Act. Passed in 2013, the law calls for the transfer of the national penitentiary from Muntinlupa City to Laur, Nueva Ecija, by 2019.
The new facility to be built in Laur can house 26,000 inmates.
But there is a catch: Transferring Bilibid will be a P50.2-billion venture, and the P437 million that was initially allocated for it was deleted from the national budget.
Unless a bigger Bilibid is built, the problems that besiege it will persist.
Band-aid solutions will not work.