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FOCUS March 2005 Volume 39

Human Rights Behind Bars:The Manila City Jail Experience

Ma. Rita Arce Alfaro

- Ma. Rita Arce Alfaro is a law graduate who headed the Manila City Jail Project of the Far Eastern University Legal Aid Bureau (Philippines). She was an intern of HURIGHTS OSAKA.

Perhaps the most inhuman act that society commits against prisoners is the blatant disregard for their rights. The thought that prisoners have human rights escapes most people. While part of a prisoner's punishment is deprivation of certain civil rights, every prisoner has rights mandated and protected by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners,[1] the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However, in the face of all these international instruments, society persists in violating the human rights of prisoners by omission and apathy - neglecting to do what ought to be done and turning a blind eye on what needs to be addressed. The Philippine Jail System, particularly the Manila City Jail, exemplifies this situation.

Within prison walls

The Manila City Jail currently accommodates close to 5,000 prisoners who are classified by law as detention prisoners, city prisoners and youth offenders. Within its walls are men, women, minors, people with mental illness, and those with health problems. Prisoners, both undergoing trial and convicted, are mixed together in this prison.

Surrounded by a shopping mall and stores, railway stations, major streets and a university, the Manila City Jail seems incongruous to the idea of sequestering criminals away from society for the purpose of rehabilitation and reformation. Inmates are hardly removed from society when they are placed in the midst of the hustle and bustle of city life.

While the Philippine government continues to initiate various projects and schemes on appropriate jail relocation such goal remains buried under the bureaucracy and suffers from lack of funding. Prison population increases as new laws provide for new offenses. The new Dangerous Drugs Act, which took effect in 2002 and provided for stricter penalties and lowered the threshold of offense necessary for arrest, caused the recent upsurge of prison population.

The jail structure

The Manila City Jail has four main compounds housing four groups divided along ethnic and gender lines. While men and women are housed in separate compounds, the juvenile delinquents are mixed with the adult prisoners, prisoners with mental illness are mixed with those who are mentally healthy, and the physically ill with the able-bodied. This is in direct contravention of the United Nations Standard for Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (UN Minimum Rules), which provides:

8. The different categories of prisoners shall be kept in separate institutions or parts of institutions taking account of their sex, age, criminal record, the legal reason for their detention and the necessities of their treatment. Thus,
 (a) Men and women shall so far as possible be detained in separate institutions; in an institution which receives both men and women the whole of the premises allocated to women shall be entirely separate;
 (d) Young prisoners shall be kept separate from adults.
82. (1) Persons who are found to be insane shall not be detained in prisons and arrangements shall be made to remove them to mental institutions as soon as possible.
(2) Prisoners who suffer from other mental diseases or abnormalities shall be observed and treated in specialized institutions under medical management.

Each compound has one main hall and one main dormitory. It is segregated from the other compounds by walls and fences. A dormitory, housing all the prisoners of the compound, has sparse facilities. Affluent inmates can pay for a space (called "condominium") that separates them from other inmates by wooden walls, and for 90 US dollars a spartan cot. The less affluent may avail of the "apartment," a space shared by 2-4 people. Destitute inmates usually sleep on the sahig or floor with hardly any bedding. Rice or flour sacks, even newspapers, are utilized as bedding while pillows and blankets are rare. Again this situation violates the UN Minimum Rules which state clearly that:

9. (1) Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself. If for special reasons, such as temporary overcrowding, it becomes necessary for the central prison administration to make an exception to this rule, it is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or room.
(2) Where dormitories are used, they shall be occupied by prisoners carefully selected as being suitable to associate with one another in those conditions. There shall be regular supervision by night, in keeping with the nature of the institution.
10. All accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.

The typical dormitory is cramped, poorly lit and with hardly any ventilation. It stinks even if cleaned and scrubbed with the harshest of disinfectants. The dormitory is blistering hot at most times of the year. Inmates fall easy prey to outbreaks of skin diseases such as boils, infections, and various allergies. Tuberculosis proliferates inside the prison walls.

The Manila City Jail was originally built to accommodate 1,000 inmates, and yet it currently houses approximately 5,000 inmates. Inmates take "shifts" in sleeping on the bare floors. During daytime, inmates could not slump or sit on the floor for lack of space. They are forced to stand all day long.

Food and sanitation

The daily budget allocated per inmate is merely 35 pesos (less than 1 US dollar). This amount covers three meals a day in addition to the budget for drinking water. The UN Minimum Rules state that:

20. (1) Every prisoner shall be provided by the administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.

The harsh reality is that the meal allowance cannot possibly be stretched to sustain a prisoner. Moreover, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology admits that with the increasing number of prisoners and detainees, the budget allocation would often be too thinly stretched in light of severe budgetary constraints in the government coffers.

Prison food is usually comprised of rice, a basic staple, and viands (usually canned sardines). On lucky days when donations arrive, a variety of canned meats may be served along with vegetable stew. Variance in viands often depends on donations from family visitors or charitable organizations. Most donations pour in only during Christmas holidays.

Due to limited food supply, the inmates are served rice mixed with sardines (or any other viand) from a cauldron. The inmates liken this to the way cows are fed in ranches, calling meal time as "ranch time" (oras ng rancho). The food has little nutritional value and prepared in unsanitary way. What is fed to the prisoner in the end would look like a feed, mush, or worse, slop.

With limited water supply due to non-functioning pipelines, personal hygiene and sanitation are highly compromised.

Human rights behind bars

A prison system facilitates punishment, retribution or retaliation, expiation, deterrence, and reformation, as well as the protection of society. But in many cases, these aims are not served. The prison system is constrained to punishment and retribution per se; with little regard for the reformation and rehabilitation of the offender. With the indifference to the plight of the prisoners, society yet creates more monsters out of them. The main thrust of present day prison system has not evolved from the time of the guillotine. But if urgent needs are to be addressed, reform in the prison system is a must.

The Manila City Jail experience symbolizes the present-day problems of the prison system.

What are placed behind bars are not just the physical bodies but the fundamental human rights of prisoners as well. Prisoners, while viewed as sinners against society, are human beings too, something neglected by many.

As Fyodor Dostoevsky opined, "A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals."[2] Let this be our guide.


1. Approved by the Economic and Social Council (resolutions 663 C (XXIV) of 31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977.

2. Taken from his novel Memoirs of the House of the Dead (1860).