Guevarra says nothing suspicious with nearly 500 deaths within PH jails

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 22) – The death of 476 inmates in a period of over six months in various prison farms nationwide is nothing out of the ordinary, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said, even as he admitted the handling of such cases need to be improved.

On average, two to three persons deprived of liberty die behind bars each day, which is roughly in line with the number of deaths reported by the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) from January to July 19, Guevarra said.

"Parang masasabi natin na hindi naman siya [We can say that the number is not] substantially higher than the daily average during the past year. Merong slight increase and I suppose that is precisely because of COVID-19," the Justice chief said during Wednesday's Pre-SONA Forum.

Of these deaths, 21 were due to COVID-19 but many of the victims had pre-existing medical ailments, particularly respiratory issues, he said. Nine were drug convicts, including the high-profile offender Jaybee Sebastian, while three were detainees from the women's correctional. The remaining nine come from various penal facilities nationwide.

This explains why the DOJ is only ordering a probe into the nine drug convicts who allegedly died due to the disease, sparking rumors that the high-profile detainees used the disease to get out of jail.

"Because of these various theories and also for the benefit of the BuCor, to dispel any doubt na meron ngang any anomaly dito sa mga pagkamatay na ito [that there are any anomalies surrounding these deaths] allegedly due to COVID-19, then we thought it proper and prudent to request the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) to step into the picture and make its own inquiry into the matter," Guevarra said.

Although a drug convict, Sebastian was considered a state witness for drug-related charges against Senator Leila De Lima, a critic of President Rodrigo Duterte who also remains detained in Camp Crame. According to Sebastian's previous testimony, drug money funded the senator's 2016 campaign.

RELATED: State witness’ death won’t keep Duterte from fabricating evidence against me — De Lima

A Senate probe is scheduled next week regarding the issue, separate from the ongoing probe.

Offhand, Guevarra noted a major issue about the current prison system.

"When the BuCor people presented to us their protocols kapag merong namamatay in prison, we noted na medyo inadequate so this will be the subject matter for further discussion: how to improve protocols kapag merong namamatay sa mga prisons [when people die inside our prisons]," he added.

The remains of Sebastian and the other Bilibid inmates who died due to coronavirus have been cremated last week. It is unclear if their families have been made aware of their situation leading up to their death.

For its part, BuCor said it has been reporting the coronavirus situation inside the national penitentiary to the Department of Health.

“Na-report naman ‘yan, automatic ‘yan. May IATF guideline ‘yan na nagre-report tayo sa DOH, lahat ‘yan nare-report,” BuCor Spokesperson Gabby Chaclag told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: They were reported, that’s automatic. There is an IATF guideline that requires to report to DOH, so everything is reported.]

He added that BuCor has also been reporting to the local city health office.