Prisoners’ Plague: COVID-19 Virus Meets Persons Deprived of Liberty

Len Ruel, Sampaguitang Dilaw | July 1st, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected various systems and sectors of society globally. From the education system that fails to show compassion to students of varying grade levels, social institutions that fail to promote any physical form of interaction and socialization, to even the government system that cannot implement a cost-effective and efficient pandemic response, no one is an exception to the wrath of the virus. Even so, the degree of vulnerability differs from a person to another. A rich family does not experience the virus the same way a family relying on donations and charity works do. The same principle applies for the free citizens and the people behind bars. Truth be told, one of the most overlooked sectors of society today that still faces the plague are the persons deprived of liberty (PDLs). 

PDLs can be understood as anyone who has been held under lawful custody, detainment, and imprisonment. According to the Mandela Rule promulgated by the United Nations, all PDLs are subject to minimum humanitarian treatments; the dignity of a person, regardless of the gravity of the offense, will in no instance be exposed to any form or exercise of any derogatory nor inhumane living conditions. However, as much as the promise of humanitarian living is enshrined in the United Nations laws, the circumstances of the pandemic have actually  exacerbated the conditions of persons deprived of liberty. 

In the local context, an increasing trend of prison population has been observed over the years. The World Prison Brief shows that in 2012, there were 106,323 PDLs in the Philippines; in 2016, the prison population reached 142,168, androse to 215,000 in 2019. In January of 2020, prison facilities under the Bureau of Corrections reached 310% capacity, while those under the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in March reached 534% capacity (Cabrera & Nonato, 2020). The alarming congestion rates have troubled many human rights advocates, stating that since facilities are heavily occupied, the tide of transmission among PDLs are also heightened. Not to mention the fact that the conditions of the facilities themselves are not prepared to support such congestion, let alone observe social distancing and hygiene practices to minimize the chances of spreading the virus. 

Statistics of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology as of July 15, 2020, reveals that there were 1,086 reported confirmed cases: 895 recoveries, 180 active cases, and 11 deaths. However, it must be noted that the statistics shown may have a margin of error as the data from the Bureau of Corrections has not been released. Further speculation states that the confirmed cases might have been higher, but the failure to report the actual cause of death of some PDLs prevented the transparent death tally (Sui, 2020). 

In response to all these concerns, there were three main solutions provided by the government: (1) assuagement of parole grants and executive clemencies, (2) consideration for vulnerable sectors, and (3) improvement of correctional health facilities. The first solution required simplified rules for conditional release, probation, and release guidelines heavily dependent on the gravity of the offenses committed. Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Eduardo Año noted that 15,102 PDLs were released through paralegal means such as bail, plea-bargaining, paroles, or probation. In the same vein, 6,756 were recorded to have been released through non-paralegal means like acquittal or finished prison sentences. However, this does not insinuate a further delay in judicial protocols. As a matter of fact, online hearings have been made possible to ascertain that no lapses in the sentence or the judicial process shall be made. 

On the other hand, considerations were given to prisoners who were at high-risk of contracting the virus, which were labelled later on as the vulnerable sectors: the elderly, the sick, and the pregnant. Moreover, low-risk offenders, children in conflict with the law, and persons arbitrarily detained have also been counted in the statistics mentioned above from March to July 2020 with 409 senior citizens, 621 sick people, and 24 pregnant women. Lastly, the improvements for the correctional health facilities were only made possible after the expanded testing program, which led to the establishment of swab collection facilities, isolation centers, and improved contact tracing that were beneficial for both the PDLs and the jail officers. These improvements were also manifested in the enhanced protocols for drug treatment and rehabilitation services in the majority of the prisons in the country. 

As of the 14th of April 2021, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has pursued the inclusion of the PDLs in the vaccination priority list, taking into account all the circumstances that continuously exacerbate the vulnerability rate of incarcerated people. By the end of their statement, CHR Spokesperson Atty. Jacqueline Ann de Guia reminded the government of its duty towards safeguarding the health of all its citizens, even those held in detention. After all, PDLs should not be discriminated against by the general public knowing that everyone may suffer the same from the virus. Most importantly, healthcare is a fundamentally recognized right even for the prisoners. 

Admittedly, data specifically on the tally of reported confirmed cases, record of released prisoners, and number of high-risk people among the PDLs are quite outdated. However, the lack of latest statistics have proved to further support the claims on inefficiency of providing real time and transparent updates. Be that as it may, it can also be assumed that the dignity of PDLs have been considered. The provided solutions may become stepping  stones into further securing the welfare of the people behind bars. However,  the question of whether or not the preventive measures made are enough and that the data made known to the public is precise and accurate has yet to be answered. Until then, the COVID-19 virus will still remain to be the prisoner’s plague. 


Cabrera, R. , & Nonato, V. (2020, May 1). 804 Inmates qualified for release – BJMP. One News . 

Cahapay, B. (2020) National Responses for Persons Deprived of Liberty during the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Philippines, Victims & Offenders, 15:7-8, 988-995, DOI: 10.1080/15564886.2020.1823920

Commission on Human Rights (2021, April 14). Calling for the inclusion of persons deprived of liberty in the priority list for Covid-19 vaccination.

Echeminada, P. (2017, April 20). Convicts now called ‘persons deprived of liberty’. The Philippine Star . 

Siu, P. (2020, June 13). Chinese inmates in Philippines fear the worst as coronavirus deaths rise. South China Morning Post .  

Keyword: COVID-19, pandemic, liberty