Open letter to Director General Ronald dela Rosa

February 23, 2018

Director General Ronald dela Rosa
Incoming Chief, Bureau of Corrections

Dear Director Gen Ronald Dela Rosa,

The purpose of this open letter is to firstly congratulate you on your expected appointment as the new head of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor). We feel that your current efforts and future vision for the BuCor will help pave the way for a long-lasting legacy. We personally believe that you have the capability, experience and professionalism to overcome the deep-rooted problems found in the BuCor, and especially in the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).

Without sounding too presumptuous, we are also writing to you to offer our support to your efforts, provide our take on how to institutionalize the early gains you have made, and to also broaden the areas of reform in the Philippines correctional system. Our advice comes from over 10 years of observational and participatory research, where we have engaged both senior BuCor and Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) personnel, prison/jail guards, inmate leaders and inmates.

We have also run many training courses and workshops for both Bureaus and have advised in areas such as, corruption, prison gang management, intelligence, analysis, risk assessment and rehabilitation. We remain committed to supporting the BuCor (and BJMP) because we believe strongly in its overall mission statement and goals. In saying this, we provide the following recommendations and commentary for your consideration. 

First, it is important to stress that the current presence of the highly-respected Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force (SAF) in the Maximum-Security Compound (Maximum) has indeed significantly reduced the endemic prison drug trade and inmate drug use by at least 90%. In your media pronouncements, you indicated that you would continue to pursue this approach. Indeed, you recently supervised the turnover of a new batch of 300 SAF officers, some of whom had recently fought in the Marawi Conflict, to relieve the current officers stationed at NBP.

You also made strong pronouncements against the active drug-dealing inmates to stop their illicit trade and to reform them from their old ways. This strong message should deter many from dealing drugs in and outside of prisons. The NBP had been a source of national embarrassment, where drug-dealing inmates have continued their trade, even though they were serving sentences inside prison. The presence of the SAF, with its strict regime of surveillance and control, its repressive policy of limiting inmate movement, and its emphasis on removing inmate privileges, has indeed reduced opportunities for inmates to deal and use drugs in Maximum.

While the SAF approach has made a significant impact, we recognize that it may not be a sustainable solution. For example, while the drug trade and inmate use in the Maximum has been tremendously curtailed, in the Medium Security Compound (Medium) it has been the reverse. Some of the drug-dealing inmates have been transferred to the Medium where the trade has filled the vacuum created by the deactivation and suppression of the inmates in Maximum.

In criminological literature, this is called “geographical displacement.” This is not surprising, (and it is unfair to blame the SAF for this, as they are not guarding the Medium), considering that drug markets usually find ways to overcome the restrictive policies of the state. This is true not only in the Philippines but in other countries as well.

Despite the repressive policies of the SAF in Maximum, most accounts suggest that drug trade and use continue to proliferate, albeit on a much lower scale.  Also, despite the reduction of drug use, other forms of contraband, like alcohol and cigarettes, have gained prominence as the alternative source of income. This is called “product displacement”, where offenders discover new lucrative alternative markets.

Again, this should not be blamed on the SAF. Even in the most restrictive prison regimes in the world, some recalcitrant inmates find creative ways to bring in contraband to overcome the pains of imprisonment. Thus, your plan of expanding the coverage of the SAF in the Medium will reduce the drug trade and inmate use in that facility. However, like in the Maximum, it will not be a sustainable solution to an endemic problem.

To make it sustainable, the SAF approach needs to be complemented by other strategies. These complementary strategies should look at the structural, organizational, and cultural conditions of the BuCor, which create the conducive criminal environment to the drug trade. Only by looking at the root causes of the problem can we incorporate a sustained intervention to overcome it.

For example, BuCor facilities are overcrowded, dilapidated, and outdated. More so, the Maximum and Medium Security Compounds, with current populations of 17,000 and 6,500 inmates, respectively, are two of the biggest mega-prisons in the world.

Current correctional literature suggests that mega-prisons of these sizes are naturally criminogenic. That is, they create environments that are conducive to the transfer and sharing of criminal thinking. Even the most sophisticated prison superintendents will not be able to effectively govern such prisons.

Thus, being a BuCor chief, and with your closeness to the President, you will be in the best position to advocate for small regional prisons. These smaller prisons should contain no more than 2,000 inmates and should be scattered throughout the different regions of the Philippines. The initial overall cost of such a move would be significant, but, in the longer term, it would be far more cost effective and reduce the levels of overcrowding and recidivism.

Another significant but related issue is corruption. The BuCor personnel have been much-maligned public servants of the country. They are casually charged with corruption and misconduct despite the difficulties of the job. Based on the BuCor Modernization Law, the ideal inmate to custodial officer ratio is 1:7; however, it currently stands at 1:80.

More so, compared to their counterparts in the BJMP, who receive a monthly pay of P29,000 for starting jail officers, the BuCor starting correctional officers receive a measly monthly pay of P13,000. While this should not be utilized as an excuse for corruption, many officers had been forced to engage in informal ventures to augment their income inside the prison facilities.

These informal moneymaking schemes become the initial enticement for corruption. Thus, you will also be in the best position to advocate with Congress, Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Office of the President to fast-track the implementation of the BuCor modernization Law, which had been passed in 2013. The modernization law provides the legal framework to address the iniquitous pay, dilapidated facilities, and the insufficient number of BuCor personnel.

Making matters worse, the operational budget of the BuCor is extremely inadequate. The budget for food per inmate per day is P60 and for medicine is P10, which by all accounts, is not enough. There is very limited budget for reformation of the inmates, for the maintenance of the facilities, buildings and equipment, and for the daily operations of the Bureau. As such, many of the reform programs designed to rehabilitate inmates are poorly designed, implemented, and financed.

While the rehabilitation officers do their best to create programs, most of the rehabilitation initiatives do not prepare inmates for their eventual release as dutiful and law-abiding citizens. Again, you will be in the best position to plead with the Filipino public and Congress to augment the inadequate resources currently provided to the BuCor.  

These structural reforms are important, because without these, the organizational setup of the BuCor, which is based on old penology, will be maintained. For example, due to the lack of space and facilities, prison officers informally allow inmates to construct their own tarima (beds), kubol (cubicles), or kubo (cottage). These are informal facilities meant to maximize the space inside the dormitories. These are important coping mechanisms to overcome the lack of ventilation, humidity, and crowding.

Also, due to lack of personnel, inmates are assigned custodial, administrative, and rehabilitation functions. Thus, you will hear such inmate titles as Bosyo, Commander, Mayores, Kulturero, Bastonero, Ranchero, Mahinarya and other intricate roles and titles inside the cells. While trivial to outsiders, these titles have symbolic meaning to the inmates.

These inmate leaders, collectively called as nanunungkulan, mediate the conflicts among inmates, generate cell funds to help sick and disabled inmates, conduct headcounts, and sometimes even hold the keys, as well as a host of other informal jobs. This form of shared governance develops as a coping mechanism for inmates to self-regulate themselves and to provide order in the heavily overcrowded cells.

Finally, the lack of resources has induced the formation of the "Very Important Preso" (VIP) system. The VIP system is different from the preferential treatment of the Very Important Persons.

The prison VIPs are inmates who have visitors and resources who are exempted from inmate tasks in exchange of their financial contributions to the cell. The VIPs are expected to provide food to the inmates without visitors in cell groups called kasalo. The VIP system entails that inmates can bring cash inside the facility so that they can survive the pains of imprisonment. (To be concluded) Rappler.com

Raymund E. Narag, PhD, teaches at the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice of Southern Illinois University Carbondale while Clarke Jones, PhD, is from the Research School of Psychology, Australia National University.