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COVID-19: BEHIND PRISON BARS

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By JESSICA PAG-IWAYAN

Everyone is at risk because of Covid-19. As the days pass, we are witnessing more and more how this deadly virus affects not just the elderly but also children. It seems not to spare anyone. 

But aside from the so-called vulnerable population, also at risk are persons deprived of liberty (PDLs), those who are locked inside prison cells.

According to a New York Times article, in Manila City Jail Dorm 5, 518 men share a space designed for only 170 people.

“The inmates were cupped into each other, limbs draped over a neighbor’s waist or knee, feet tucked against someone else’s head, too tightly packed to toss and turn in the sweltering heat,” the reports say. “Philippine jails have become increasingly more packed, propelling the overall prison system to the top of the World Prison Brief’s list of the most overcrowded incarceration systems in the world.”

Meanwhile, in New Bilibid Prison, one cell caters to 131 people even though it was designed just for 30. In a situation like this, social distancing is impossible. 

To shed light on how PDLs are coping, an anonymous source shares with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle the situation behind the prison bars.

Their story

According to her, at start of the Covid-19 crisis, their jail station closed its doors to visitors. Confused, scared, and lonely, PDLs are trying their best to live in this new normal.

“We’re having a hard time emotionally and psychologically,” she says. “Since Covid-19 hit the Philippines, our loved ones have no longer been able to visit us. No visitors are allowed.”

Quezon City Jail

Inmates occupy every available space in this cramped cell at the Quezon City Jail (File Photo AFP | Manila Bulletin)

In her dorm, 290 detainees are packed in a small, confined cell. “Nakakapag social distancing lang kmi ‘pag nasa labas, pero kapag nasa selda hindi na magagawa ‘yun gawa nga ng madami kami masyado sa loob (We can only practice social distancing when we’re outside our cells, but once inside it’s no longer doable because we’re just too many),” she says.

Despite the limited space, the source says that the jail management is doing its best to protect them against Covid-19. “A lot of our routines have changed. Since we can’t practice social distancing, we are provided with face masks, especially once we’re inside our cells,” she continues.

With the imposed enhanced community quarantine and the continued rise in the number of Covid cases, even some of the jail personnel are stuck with the inmates as they’re no longer allowed to go home to their families—to protect them from the virus and also so they don’t risk contaminating PDLs. 

“They are really looking after us,” she says.

Yung mga personel nakakaawa din dahil hindi rin sila makauwi sa mga pamilya nila. Pare-pareho na kaming preso dito (I feel sad for some of our personnel here because they also can’t go home to their families. We’re now all prisoners here).”

To keep them healthy, they have even been provided with ginger tea with lemon.

No one can escape the threat

One might ask, how could they catch the new coronavirus if they are imprisoned and can’t even interact with the outside world? 

To this day, there has been no conclusive scientific study that verifies how Covid-19 infects an individual, aside from person-to-person interaction. But just recently, nine PDLs from Quezon City jail tested positive for Covid-19, together with nine jail workers. With the reality that this too could happen to them, the source admitted she’s scared not just for herself but for her family.

“I’m missing my family so bad. But I’m afraid that I might get infected and transmit the virus to my loved ones if they visit me,” she says. “Nakakaramdam ako ng takot para sa sarili ko at para rin sa mga kasama ko. Sana matapos na itong Covid para makaginhawa na kami at magkadalaw na kami dito sa loob (I’m afraid not just for myself but for my fellow inmates. I’m praying that this will be gone soon and everything will return to normal).”

As of writing, the Department of Health has reported 7,192 Covid-19 cases in the Philippines, with 477 deaths.


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/04/26/covid-19-behind-prison-bars/)

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