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At Massive and Corrupt Philippine Prison, Contraband Includes Jacuzzis and Horses

by Kevin W. Bliss

In an article published on March 3, 2023, ABS-CBN News said that conditions at the Philippines’ New Bilibid Prison (NBP) – one of the largest prisons in the world – were simply deplorable. Overcrowding and insufficient resources have resulted in abundant contraband, establishing a power hierarchy among prisoners and increasing the potential for corruption at all levels of the Philippine prison system, as well as fostering an unsanitary and violent environment that is killing many prisoners.

The murder of journalist Percival Mabasa at NBP on October 3, 2022, prompted an investigation and an institutional shakedown, during which tens of thousands of contraband items were collected, ranging from the usual weapons, alcohol and drugs, to more extravagant luxuries like air conditioning units and Jacuzzi tubs – even horses and pythons.

In November 2022, prison system chief Gerald Bantag was charged with ordering the hit on Mabasa. But widespread corruption has long persisted at NBP. One prisoner was able to bribe officials into building a sound studio in his cell from which he recorded and sold 15,000 copies of an album of love songs. Mabasa’s murder and Bantag’s arrest have brought attention to this long history of abuses. Justice secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said he planned to institute reforms to reduce overcrowding and combat the level of corruption., including bond reductions for the poor and raising indictment requirements necessary to charge a defendant with a crime.

On July 15, 2023, 25-year-old prisoner Michael Catarroja went missing at NBP. His decapitated body was found 10 days later floating in a prison septic tank – where body parts from an undetermined number of people were also found. Prison Superintendent Angelina Bautista said the bodies “have been chopped up,” so it wasn’t possible to know if any belonged to Cararroja.

“We haven’t identified yet if this is the missing PDL (person deprived of liberty),” she said, “because there are many missing PDLs here whom we don’t know if they escaped or not.”

NBP holds about 29,000 prisoners in a facility designed for 6,000. Cellblocks intended to house 10 prisoners now have 100, with only one guard to oversee them. This has left prisoners in charge, with many guards recruited to smuggle contraband for them.

Since guards pick and choose what rules they enforce and against whom, visitations may be cancelled without reason or warning. Attorneys are denied access to their clients. Care packages sent by families are ravaged and destroyed before they ever reach the prisoner.

An anonymous prison medical official blamed unsanitary and violent living conditions for an annual death toll he estimated at 5,200. Pres. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. has released 4,000 prisoners since July 2022. But Human Rights Watch senior Asia division researcher Carlos Conde said more facilities and funding were needed. “We lack judges, we lack courts, the system is just broken,” he said. 

Sources: ABS-CBN News, CNN, Philippine News Agency