CHR: COVID-19 cases in Davao facility is wake-up call on practice of jailing youth offenders
MANILA, Philippines—The COVID-19 cases recorded in Davao City’s Bahay Pagasa — a reform facility for youth offenders — should prompt the government to review its practice of detaining minors in the middle of a pandemic, according to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
In a statement on Wednesday (Feb. 24), CHR spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia said that the commission was alarmed by reports that 49 youth offenders had tested positive for SARS Cov2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the reform facility.
De Guia said that while authorities were quick to act to address the outbreak, the case presented a bigger issue—why youth offenders are being detained during the health crisis when they could be allowed to go home for everyone’s safety.
“The risks posed by COVID-19 underline the need to dramatically reduce the number of children in institutions and detention facilities to protect not just the detainees but the health and safety of staff, visitors, and the wider society,” she said.
“The commission urges the government to evaluate child detainees’ release, with priority to children detained pre-trial; those detained for low-level nonviolent offenses and those with medical conditions that may put them at particular risk of serious illness or death from coronavirus infection,” she added.
Reports from Davao City last Saturday (Feb. 20) said 49 out of 105 youth offenders had tested positive for coronavirus. The city health office, according to the reports, was unsure about how the minors got infected.
The CHR said detainees, whether children or adults, should have the right to sanitation and health care in detention but stood firm that the best-case scenario should be for minors not to be jailed.
“It is important to note that measures taken amid a health crisis should not undermine the fundamental rights of detained people, especially children, including their rights to adequate health care, food, water, and sanitation, while also upholding their right against ill-treatment,” De Guia said.
“We maintain that under any circumstance, deprivation of liberty is never in a child’s best interest. For young men and women in juvenile detention, the pandemic has put an added emotional weight by being in isolation from their families and communities back home,” she added.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) has released over 15,000 inmates in July 2020 for fear that overcrowding and unsanitary conditions could lead to an outbreak of coronavirus in detention facilities.
Most of inmates, who had been released, were elderly who committed light or bailable offenses and others who qualify under the Supreme Court guidelines on decongesting jails.
The CHR said that Republic Act No. 9344, or Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, must be implemented fully as government compliance with the law could prevent a repeat of the Davao City case.
“We push for a stronger implementation of the Juvenile Justice Welfare Act in the country during normal and pandemic times, and demand genuine government compliance with international laws on protecting children’s rights and welfare,” De Guia said.
“Likewise, with the upcoming rollout of coronavirus vaccines, we remind the government that everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable and at higher risk of infection like children in detention, should have equal access to vaccination,” she added.
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