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DoJ eyes total prison overhaul

By: - Reporter / @JeromeAningINQ
/ 03:29 AM May 27, 2011

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima

MANILA, Philippines—The Department of Justice is considering a “total overhaul” of the penal system as a result of the controversy concerning the special privileges enjoyed by former Batangas Gov. Antonio Leviste and other VIP inmates of the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).

Speaking Wednesday at a press conference, Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III said the panel looking into the liabilities of NBP and Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) officials vis-à-vis Leviste’s unauthorized trip to Makati City on May 18 would recommend a top-to-bottom reshuffle and the strengthening of security measures at the national penitentiary.

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“We will recommend a total overhaul of the system in the NBP, the replacement of the guards and even the officers. We are discussing the possibility of having some members of the Philippine Army guard the NBP in the meantime,” said Baraan, the supervising officer of the panel.

“There will be replacements or reassignments. We will include among our recommendations the retraining and reorientation [of BuCor personnel]. We will inculcate professionalism [in the ranks],” he said.

The fate of BuCor Director Ernesto Diokno, who has gone on leave, and his deputies will depend on President Benigno Aquino III because they are presidential appointees, according to Baraan.

Panel hearings

For three days starting on Monday, the fact-finding panel formed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima looked into the circumstances that allowed Leviste, a homicide convict, to leave the NBP compound in Muntinlupa City without a pass and travel to Makati where he was arrested by authorities.

The panel inspected the security arrangements at the penitentiary and questioned Leviste, Diokno, other NBP officials and guards.

Malacañang is hopeful that De Lima will be able to submit the panel’s recommendations and findings on Friday, when the President returns from a state visit to Thailand, his spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters on Wednesday.

But De Lima will submit only a “partial update” on the panel’s findings, Lacierda said.

Diokno, who had earlier told reporters that he could not be expected to guard all the prisoners at the NBP, is reputed to be close to the President.

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He was summoned to Malacañang last week, but Mr. Aquino later expressed dissatisfaction with his initial statements and indicated that his fate would depend on how he would explain himself to the fact-finding panel.

A former chief of police of Manila, Diokno told the panel on Wednesday that he was not to blame for Leviste’s behavior because his main job was not guarding prisoners but “policymaking.”

Panel report

Baraan, who has been appointed officer in charge of the BuCor, said the recommendations of the panel would reach “up to the level of the director.”

He said the report would “deal with how strong, how sufficiently established, are the liabilities” of the officials concerned.

He also said the first part of the report would tackle the criminal and administrative liabilities of the prison officials and, the second part, the reforms that were needed at the BuCor and the other penitentiaries.

Baraan said the cancellation of the prisoners’ “sleep out” and “living in” privileges might be done at the level of the Department of Justice.

He noted that “sleep out” privileges had been revoked and that “living in” privileges were being retained for elderly and disabled inmates, as well as those with less than a year remaining in their prison terms.

“The grant of the ‘living in’ privilege should not be automatic. The basis is the record (conduct and behavior) of the inmate, his age and the length of the sentence served. This is contained in the old manual,” he said.

No excuse

Baraan said the justice department recognized the complaint of prison officials concerning the lack of funds and the entry of private settlers into the NBP reservation.

But he pointed out that these should not be used as “excuses for relaxing security.”

He said that unless reforms were put in place, escapes, attempted escapes and unauthorized trips would continue.

Baraan cited the example of a drug trafficking convict, Frank Chua, who disappeared from the NBP in 2004 and was never seen again.

“He was said to have escaped in 2004, but this was not reported. He’s a big-time drug trafficker. This was not given due attention. We’re looking into that now, and I have inquired from our officials in the bureau. We will look into whether he is still being hunted. The possibility is that he is already out of the country,” Baraan said.

He also said there would be a separate inquiry into reports of drug use, prostitution and gambling in the NBP, the Correctional Institute for Women and other state penitentiaries nationwide.

Relocation

Baraan said that a proposal by Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima to develop the NBP into a commercial district and use the proceeds for its relocation had been revived and that the President had ordered the matter studied.

He said the penitentiary could be transferred to Tanay, Rizal province, or several regional prisons could be set up so that convicts from faraway regions would no longer have to be transported all the way to Manila for incarceration.

He said portions of the NBP could be turned over for development by private investors and leased out to companies under the build-operate-transfer scheme. With a report from Christine O. Avendaño

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TAGS: BuCor Director Ernesto Diokno, Bureau of Corrections, Department of Justice, former Batangas Gov. Antonio Leviste, New Bilibid Prison (NBP), Prison, VIP inmates
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