Immigration eyeing bail for detained foreigners to decongest detention center

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 22) — The Bureau of Immigration said Wednesday it is speeding up deportation cases and is eyeing bail for foreigners currently detained in Taguig to decongest the facility and stop the spread of COVID-19.

The agency said it is taking steps to reduce the number of inmates held in the alien detention center located inside the BI Warden Facility at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan.

Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente ordered the bureau's legal division to resolve deportation cases against these foreigners as soon as possible, in order to "reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreak among the foreigners confined in the facility."

Morente added that bail may be offered to these illegal aliens, as well as an option to be released through recognizance, which will allow temporary freedom for the accused without posting a fee pending the court's decision on pending cases.

So far, the bureau has released two pregnant women on bail, while a third expectant mother has been sent to her home country.

Immigration officials arrest foreign nationals caught smuggling illegal drugs and other illicit goods to the country, as well as those with criminal records abroad and those proven using fake passports or travel documents in the country's ports. The agency is also in charge of accosting overstaying foreign nationals, including those illegally working in the Philippines.

READ: Nearly 800 immigration personnel reassigned due to 'pastillas' scheme

Currently, visitors are not allowed to enter the alien detention center while strict rules on proper handwashing and sanitation have been imposed in the facility. Jail wardens have also requested the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as foreign embassies for face mask donations.

The BI's move followed COVID-19 infections among prisoners at the Quezon City Jail and the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong. The Supreme Court has yet to decide on the petition calling for the release of inmates who have a high risk of contracting the disease, particularly the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions.

The nine inmates and nine jail personnel in Quezon City have been transferred to an isolation center in Payatas, while those from the Women's Correctional have been transferred to a quarantine area inside the New Bilibid Prison compound in Muntinlupa, Bureau of Corrections Spokesperson Gabby Chaclag said.

READ: 20% of Bilibid inmates die every year due to overcrowding, hospital head says

Chaclag said that while most jail complexes have wide common spaces, he admitted that the bigger issue lies within prison cells.

"We have wide spaces in our reservation. Meron lang po tayong constraint o challenge sa mga building, sa mga dormitories kasi hindi sila pwedeng mag-social distancing o physical distancing [We have constraints or challenges in the building, inside dormitories because they cannot practice social or physical distancing]," Chaclag told CNN Philippines' New Day.

He added that there are mechanisms in place to set up isolation tents for suspected COVID-19 patients within jail facilities.

A petition to release high-risk inmates with medical conditions as well as first-time offenders of petty crimes amid the COVID-19 pandemic is pending before the Supreme Court, as some human rights groups call the country's congested detention cells as "ticking time bombs" for infections. For now, the high court has instructed first and second-level courts to fast-track the evaluation of detainees who may be set free just to decongest jail cells in the country.

Bureau of Jail Management and Penology spokesperson Xavier Solda said earlier this month that inmates are safer inside jails, especially with local transmission of COVID-19 among barangays and towns in various parts of the country.