Manila (Philippines), 4 March 2022—The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) geared correctional and detention authorities to prepare for future health emergencies via an interactive virtual meeting.
Policymakers and senior officers of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), and Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) dissected the state of prison and jail management in the country, borrowing from the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is in relation to the initiative, Public Health Emergency Preparedness: Harmonizing Infection Prevention & Control Strategies in the Philippine Correctional System to manage the risk of infection of COVID-19 in line with public health standards. It is part of an ongoing project on jail and prison management reform, supported by the Australian Government and implemented by the UNODC.
DOJ Undersecretary for Corrections Cluster Deo L. Marco, in his message of support, commended the efforts of relevant agencies to deliver the most optimal response despite resource limitations. He noted that, “While each of us has experienced the pandemic in different ways, we all struggled to cope and muster whatever resources we may have, but persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) are not as blessed—as they are more vulnerable to the COVID-19 and they rely chiefly on the people who have custody over them for basic services such as food, health, safety, and security.”
Prison reform experts Dr. Clarke Jones and Dr. Raymund Narag then presented the findings of the project team, which analyzed the conditions confronted by Philippine jails and prisons as aggravated by the pandemic.
Dr. Narag noted that it is important to understand the structural conditions within jail and prison facilities (i.e. medical resources, facilities, & equipment), as well as the organizational processes (COVID-19 protocols, capacity) and culture (shared ways of doing, narratives justifying behaviors), which altogether define the health emergency management outcomes (number of infections and deaths, quality of life, and receipt of ‘safety seal’).
Critical constraints faced by the BuCor and BJMP include jail and prison overcrowding, lack of facilities to address public health emergency concerns (e.g. isolation and quarantine areas), and limited number of medical and health professionals to cover the rising number of cases related to mental health deterioration, among others.
Dr. Narag also noted some positives: that cultural practices within jails and prisons enhanced coping mechanisms such as positive engagements with persons-deprived-of-liberty (PDLs). He then elaborated on the many individual sacrifices of jail and prison personnel.
Dr. Jones then outlined some critical ways forward which include addressing capacity shortfalls, improving communication and coordination between agencies, providing training to priority areas, and establishing consistency in “best-practice” response mechanisms to address future health emergencies.
Said findings and recommendations were based on a rapid needs assessment with relevant authorities conducted in 2021 and the recently conducted tabletop exercise.
Ms. Carmela Barcelona of the World Health Organization – Philippines shared the latest updates and approaches on the management of COVID-19 in closed settings which include strengthening mechanisms for screening and surveillance, referral and clinical management, and infection prevention and control.
Dr. Almira Gatchalian of the Department of Health Disease Prevention and Control Bureau further expounded on the strategies employed by the government in the fight against COVID-19, from the policy directions of the Interagency Task Force down to the service delivery of local government units (LGUs). Dr. Gatchalian emphasized that decisions to open sectors and specific institutions are based on controlled levels of transmission and risk, health system capacity, minimized outbreak risks for high transmission settings, and stakeholder involvement.
UNODC Senior Policy Advisor Olivier Lermet thanked the valuable inputs of partner agencies, which were all contributory to the project team’s findings. Lermet, drawing from the analyses and recommendations of the project team, urged authorities to be prepared for future health emergencies while also being keen on the effective control of drug dependence and other infectious and communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV, among others.
Australian Embassy representative Jennifer Bennett also relayed a message of support and reaffirmed their commitment to support reforms in the prison and security sector as well as in the continuing COVID-19 response and recovery in the Philippines.
Noting the contributions of jail and prison officers, Bennett stressed, “You’re really at the frontlines of tackling the COVID-19 crisis. All around the world, prisons have been important points for outbreak and so it’s incredibly important that we manage that and look after the vulnerable people that are inside them.”
Moving forward, authorities are to convene by end of March through the Joint Coordination Committee led by the DOJ to discuss the crafting of a common infection prevention strategy to further manage the risk of infection of COVID-19 and prevent and mitigate future pandemics in line with public health standards.