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Philippine Prisons' Crushing Problem

As poverty leads to a surge in thefts, jails are bursting. Children and adults share cells, often awaiting trial beyond the time they'd likely serve.

June 06, 2005|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — Ranilyn Geronimo spent her 14th birthday locked in a jail cell with 50 women. Two months later, she is still there. The cell is so crowded that the prisoners sleep on the floor packed tight in rows, all of them lying on their left side. During the day, the temperature routinely soars above 100 degrees. Her best friends are accused murderers.

Her crime: stealing a fish.

Ranilyn, boyish-looking with her hair cut short, was caught at the Manila fishing port and taken to the Navotas Municipal Jail about four months ago. She says her family is so poor that she was eating only one meal a day before her arrest. Her bail was set at $37, but no one she knows has that kind of money.

At the jail, sunlight filters through small, grimy windows high in the walls of cells the size of a large bedroom. Hammocks hang from the bars like spider webs. Some of the prisoners have red sores all over their arms and legs. A few inmates cough from tuberculosis. During the month's highest tides, seawater seeps inside, sometimes rising as high as the prisoners' knees.

"When I think of freedom," Ranilyn said, "I just want to cry."

Across the Philippines, growing economic hardship and widespread poverty have triggered a sharp increase in property crimes, particularly theft. The number of arrests has soared and the volume of prisoners has skyrocketed far beyond the capacity of the jail system.

Federal rules call for juveniles to be housed separately from adults, but the requirement is widely ignored. Minors are frequently kept in detention centers with adults, and often in the same cell.

The court system is so clogged that some prisoners spend more time in jail awaiting trial than they would serve if they could get before a judge, plead guilty and be sentenced.

"Thousands of children in jail in the Philippines are daily subjected to violence and trauma which should not allow any of us to sleep at night," said Nicholas Alipui, UNICEF representative to the Philippines, who backs legislation that would require separate detention facilities for children.

In February, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, acknowledged the appalling state of the country's jails as she defended her decision not to carry out executions.

"You know, given our conditions in jail, [being imprisoned] is a fate worse than death," she said.

Increasingly, Filipinos are holding Arroyo accountable for the country's continuing economic slide and the widespread corruption that bleeds the government of resources to provide basic services.

"What kind of president would not be helping children in jail?" asked Ranilyn, who turned 14 on April 4. "Some inmates get sick and don't get medicine. Why isn't she helping?"

Growing Desperation

The Philippine economy, once one of the strongest in Southeast Asia, has declined steadily over the last few decades. Today, a third of the labor force is either unemployed or has found work overseas. Poverty is so extreme in some parts of the country that the child malnutrition rate exceeds that of North Korea, according to figures released by UNICEF last month.

Arroyo, who took office with military support in 2001 and was elected to keep her job last year, is facing mounting calls to step down. In recent months, it is believed that a group of active and retired military officers have been quietly organizing an effort to topple her.

"We are ripe for another coup," said Rex Robles, a retired navy commodore and intelligence officer who is now a security analyst.

Since Arroyo has come to power, the number of economic crimes has soared even as violent crimes have declined slightly, according to Philippine National Police statistics.

From 2000, the year before Arroyo took office, to 2004, thefts increased by 44%, police figures show. During the same period, the rate of violent offenses, including murder, rape and assault, dropped from 2.73 per 100,000 people to 2.46, records show.

Many of the thefts are small, often just enough to provide something to eat. But for the destitute, getting caught can lead to months behind bars.

Aneza Marivic de la Cruz has been locked up at the Quezon City Female Dorm since October on charges that she shoplifted a Milo energy drink and four small bottles of Head & Shoulders shampoo from a convenience store.

The 37-year-old admits putting the items in a shopping bag and trying to walk out of the store. They were worth 491 pesos, or barely $9. She said she planned to sell them so she could buy rice for her husband and two daughters, 4 and 11.

The typical sentence for petty theft in the Philippines is six months. De la Cruz has already spent seven months in jail waiting for her case to be heard. Her bail was set at $92.

"No one could raise that in my family, because we are very poor," said De la Cruz, whose family has had little to live on since her husband lost his job in 1999.

Clean and brightly lighted, the Quezon City facility is one of Manila's better jails. Designed for 84 inmates, it houses 581.

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