All mod cons - elite prisoners live in luxury

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 June, 2011, 12:00am


Jose Antonio Leviste is a high-profile prisoner whose friends say used to enjoy performing magic tricks at parties.

Two weeks ago, his disappearing acts caught up with him after he slipped out of jail to visit his penthouse in the heart of Manila's financial district, Makati.

It was not the first time the 71-year-old former provincial governor had left the grounds of New Bilibid Prison on the outskirts, where he is serving a 12-year sentence for killing his best friend.

Unfortunately someone this time tipped off the authorities and he was discovered along with two other inmates he had brought along with him. Leviste, who said he left prison without permission to see a dentist, will face court next week.

Yesterday, the justice department said that five officials of the prison should be charged with 'misconduct, neglect of duty and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service'. Criminal charges were recommended for his jail guard. The department's damning 44-page report also vows to bring about more equal and more humane treatment for all prisoners.

On Monday, prisons chief Ernesto Diokno's resignation was immediately accepted by his personal friend, President Benigno Aquino, ahead of the report's publication. Diokno is the first of Aquino's appointees to leave office under a cloud. The president vowed 'sweeping prison reforms'. Leviste's arrest, he said, lifted the lid on the 'open secret' of corruption in the Philippine justice system.

While most of the country's 104,710 inmates live in abject, cramped quarters built to contain only a third of their numbers, an elite class of prisoners sleep in their own comfortable huts equipped with queen-size beds, flat-screen television sets, fans and, like Leviste, are able to slip in and out of jail.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Feliciano Belmonte expressed no surprise over Leviste's escapades: 'He was the only one who got caught but I'm sure many people have done that in the past.'

A justice department investigative panel, after a recent surprise visit to the 536-hectare Bilipid compound, found that other high-profile inmates had also slipped out of jail because security was kept lax for them. No security cameras were installed at the prison gates.

Authorities are also investigating reports that similar privileges were being extended to Andal Ampatuan Senior, the alleged mastermind of the November 2009 Maguindanao massacre, where 32 journalists were murdered. Human rights lawyer Harry Roque reported that three of his colleagues spotted Ampatuan inside a swanky hotel in suburban Manila.

Ampatuan's jail warden was sacked last week.

Ampatuan's lawyers have asked the judge to block relatives of the massacre victims from inspecting his detention cell, following reports he was getting special treatment by being allowed numerous visitors, a cellphone and even a laptop. His lawyers invoked his constitutional right 'to privacy and security.'

Also yesterday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima revoked all the special privileges enjoyed by Leviste and other inmates.

Of some 22,000 inmates at Bilibid, 419 had 'living out' privileges, while 109 enjoyed 'sleep out' status.

These peculiar arrangements became official during the previous presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who had issued memorandum orders allowing prisoners about to finish their sentences or who were over 70 years old to 'live out' of their cells during daytime but return there at night.

A select few, like Leviste, were granted 'sleep out' status - they no longer had to sleep in the 40-square meter cells where 60 to 80 men crammed in at night.

Instead, they had their own huts built outside the minimum security block. Leviste was even allowed to pick eight men to 'sleep out' with him.

De Lima said: 'For me, the most serious problems that [should be addressed] are congestion and drug problems.'

When Leviste's ex-wife, Senator Loren Legarda, was asked to comment on his case, she said the law should apply to everyone, 'rich or poor.'


The number of children arrested and detained in the Philippines since 1995, according to Amnesty International