Killing time

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 12:00am

When you hear the world 'prison', you probably think of a secure place for safely keeping people locked up. It is an accurate description of Philippine jails - if you drop the words 'secure', 'safely' and 'locked up'.

Last week, several prisoners belonging to the murderous Abu Sayyaf terrorist group managed to take over their jail. After a one-day standoff, police stormed the building and killed most of the terrorists, along with more than a dozen Muslim inmates whose only crime was to be in the attackers' line of fire.

The mayhem raised, once again, the point that there is something wrong with Philippine prisons. Just two years ago, three convicted fundamentalist terrorists simply walked out of their cells late one evening. Before that, yet another Abu Sayyaf prisoner escaped - by dressing up as a woman.

Last week's takeover unfolded in a way which might make many action movie scriptwriters cringe. First, the terrorists snatched pistols from the guards' holsters and then shot three of their captors dead. Second, it turned out that the inmates had mobile phones, and so were able to conduct interviews with the media, which promptly aired everything live (some of the radio announcers were openly broadcasting the government's plans). Third, the government claims that before the abortive jailbreak, the prisoners were smuggling in arms in pieces.

All this took place in what was supposed to be a high-security jail for the country's most dangerous prisoners. It makes you wonder what things must be like in more run-of-the-mill prisons. Several years ago, journalists revealed how one congressman serving a life term for raping a minor was living a life of ease in jail. His cell was wood-panelled, and had mod cons like air-conditioning. In addition, he was running a hamburger stand in the jail. That report seemed in keeping with stories that drug dealers and illegal recruiters continue to run their syndicates from inside their cells.

Given such lax security, it appears that visitors to jails here face the risk of being seized and held hostage by prisoners. Even worse than that, government forces might then attempt a rescue. More than 10 years ago, a young American woman missionary who was trying to convert inmates in a Mindanao prison was grabbed by the prisoners. After the police had finished their 'rescue' operation, the hostage and her captors were all dead.

Much of this stems from a police and penal force so poorly funded and trained that corruption and inefficiency are inevitable. Perhaps there could be a crackdown, with offenders hauled to court and, if found guilty, punished by being sent to jail. On second thought, forget it.