BJMP supports temporary release of prisoners, but only by court order

MANILA, Philippines – The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) said it supports the call to temporarily release eligible prisoners on bail so jails would be decongested amid the coronavirus pandemic, but only if there is a court order.

"The expeditious release of all qualified persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) by reason of a court order on the basis of the proposed omnibus reduction of bail mentioned in the committee's recommendation is an idea we strongly subscribe to," said BJMP chief Allan Iral in a letter to the House justice committee dated April 9, a copy of which was obtained by Rappler on Monday, April 13.

Interior Undersecrerary Jonathan Malaya confirmed Iral's letter. The BJMP is under the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

Iral responded to the letter of the House justice committee chaired by Leyte 3rd District Representative Vicente Veloso recommending that certain prisoners, like the sick, elderly, and low-risk offenders, be released on bail amid the pandemic.

Veloso's recommendation was sent to the peace and order cluster of the overall House Defeat COVID-19 Committee, but agencies in the government's justice cluster like the BJMP, the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Supreme Court were given copies.

The BJMP's deferrence to a court order suggests it was not inclined to implement a purely executive policy to temporarily release prisoners.

"The BJMP does not have any opposition to this noble intention. We support the idea that jail decongestion at this point in time is an immediate and effective response to combat the COVID-19 pandemic," said Iral.

Malaya also noted that the BJMP "cannot release PDLs without a court order."

"So we support the initiative of Congress, but its implementation would depend on the judiciary," he said.

The BJMP supports Veloso's recommendations to:

"The jail bureau manifests its support [for] its inclusion in the proposed ad hoc committee and active participation in the drafting of guidelines for the purposes of releasing qualified PDLs through issuance of court order," said Iral.

Earlier, BJMP Spokesperson Xavier Solda expressed apprehension to the idea, saying there needs to be strong evidence that the prisoners will not commit crimes outside of jail.

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the DOJ is still studying the House committee recommendation.

"I will broach the idea of a Justice Sector Coordinating Council meeting on the matter to Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta," Guevarra told Rappler.

Several rights groups and individuals have been calling for the temporary release of low-risk offenders and vulnerable prisoners, following similar moves from several countries, including the United Kingdom.

Solda said in the government's Laging Handa briefing on Monday that there are still no coronavirus cases in BJMP facilities, although 21 inmates are in isolation and have been tested.

The inmates were isolated after the jail physician raised the possible coronavirus infection of a prisoner who recently died of a heart ailment. – with a report from Rambo Talabong/

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.