Prison deaths high under Bantag, some found with ‘criminal intent’
MANILA, Philippines — It took the death of a New Bilibid Prison (NBP) inmate, who turned out to be an alleged key conspirator in the killing of radio broadcaster Percival Mabasa, for top officials to suspend Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) Director General Gerald Bantag.
But families of prisoners held in BuCor facilities, especially NBP in Muntinlupa City, had long called for an overhaul of the leadership of the agency, over the mysterious deaths of their loved ones while serving time.
Based on BuCor data obtained by the Inquirer, it was during the term of Bantag that prisoner deaths per year were the highest since 1990.
Increase in deaths
At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, BuCor recorded 1,082 deaths among so-called persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) in all of its seven prisons and penal farms nationwide, up by 43.5 percent from the previous year’s 754 deaths.
The number of PDL deaths increased further in 2021, with 1,166 of 48,501 prisoners who died that year.
This is an inmate mortality rate of 2.4 percent, which is way higher than the 0.2 percent universally accepted figures for deaths while incarcerated.
This means that at least three PDLs were dying every day in BuCor prisons in 2021.
As of September this year, BuCor recorded 708 inmate deaths nationwide.
Only COVID cases specified
BuCor health service director Dr. Henry Fabro and spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag did not respond to the Inquirer’s request for comment.
BuCor did not specify the causes of the inmates’ deaths. But by the end of March, it disclosed that since 2020, 688 inmates contracted COVID-19 and 33 had died.
Chaclag earlier touted that BuCor facilities had been COVID-19 free since January and that almost 90 percent of all of its inmates were fully inoculated.
Fabro sounded the alarm back in 2019 that BuCor facilities were in “critical condition,” with one prisoner dying daily due to a lack of medical staff and facilities.
As of Dec. 31, 2021, BuCor only had 402 corrections technical officers, which include medical personnel, tasked with implementing the reformation programs of the agency.
The figure was way below the standards set by Republic Act No. 10575, or the Bureau of Corrections Act of 2013, which directed BuCor to maintain the technical officer-to-inmate ratio at 1:24. This is equivalent to at least 2,063 corrections technical officers serving all the 49,515 prisoners in BuCor facilities nationwide.
On Friday, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ordered the suspension of Bantag to give way to a fair and impartial investigation of the death of inmate Jun Villamor, who was identified by confessed gunman Joel Escorial as a “middleman” in the plot to kill Mabasa, popularly known as Percy Lapid.
BuCor maintained that based on their initial inspection of Villamor’s body, there were “no signs of physical external injuries which probably indicates a natural cause of death or no signs of foul play.”
Bantag was among the government officials who had been sharply criticized by Mabasa in his “Lapid Fire” radio program that was also livestreamed on his YouTube channel and Facebook page.
Bantag was replaced by former military chief Gregorio Catapang Jr. as officer in charge.
He was regional director of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) in Mimaropa and was temporarily assigned “on secondment” to replace Nicanor Faeldon in September 2019.
Faeldon was sacked by Duterte following the questionable release of prisoners convicted of heinous crimes after an alleged misapplication of the good conduct time allowance law.
In March this year, Bantag was formally appointed by Duterte as the director general of BuCor, which is under the Department of Justice. The BJMP is under the Department of the Interior and Local Government. He was supposed to serve until March 4, 2028.
Bantag had also worked as jail warden in the Metro Manila cities of Malabon, Navotas, Valenzuela, Parañaque and Manila.
During his first month — from Oct. 9, 2019, to Oct. 25, 2019 — 29 inmates at NBP died. Families of PDLs were stripped of their visitation privileges while illegal structures in the national penitentiary were being demolished.
Bantag had dismissed the deaths of inmates as “normal,” saying they had prior health issues.
“Even before the demolition, marami nang namatay diyan, ’di ba (many had died, wasn’t that so)?” he told reporters.
In July 2020, calls for his resignation grew louder after senators learned that at least nine high-profile inmates at NBP died one after another allegedly due to COVID-19, raising speculations that they were either eliminated or released secretly.
Among those who died was Jaybee Sebastian, considered a key witness in the drug trafficking charges against former Sen. Leila de Lima.
Bantag said then that he was willing to leave his post, noting that being the BuCor chief “gave me headaches anyway.”
He did not resign but was summoned by then-Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra to explain these deaths.
It did not help the investigation that the bodies of the inmates were immediately cremated following pandemic protocols at the time, preventing authorities from conducting autopsies.
In July this year, the National Bureau of Investigation found “criminal intent” in the deaths of eight of these inmates, who were reported to have died of COVID-19.
The NBI filed murder complaints against 22 personnel of the National Capital Region Police Office, including police officers and medical staff who had been assigned at NBP during the time of the inmates’ deaths.
No BuCor personnel was named as respondents in the complaint.
DOJ chief Remulla suspends BuCor director general Gerald Bantag
Leila de Lima: Order to suspend BuCor’s Bantag ‘right move, big first step’
Autopsy of ‘middleman’ in Percy Lapid killing raises more questions
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