Philippines Criminal Justice System

When we enter the cell in Bilibid Prison, a group of inmates suddenly disperses. They had been hunching over something. We now see it is what seems to be a little girl dressed in scanty garments. She stands up, ashamed. Her eyebrows are drawn in large, swooping arcs. Her fingernails and toenails are painted maroon. "Isn't this a prison for male inmates only?" we ask our guide, a worker from the Philippine Jesuit Prison Service. "That is a boy," she says. The child stands up, adjusting his garments. We have apparently interrupted a scene of molestation. "This is the whole problem."

The diversity of problems in the Philippines is both remarkable and depressingly familiar--from a flat-footed economy to Muslim terrorists in the south to thick layers of official corruption. But almost all the country's ills can be traced back to a fundamental lack of justice. That sense reaches its starkest expression in places like Bilibid, 15 kilometers outside Manila. In the Philippines, children as young as 9 can be tried as adults and sent to adult jails. (Only a dozen juvenile-detention centers exist in the entire country, and they are usually full.) Conservative estimates say the number of such child prisoners has grown to more than 20,000, or 10 percent of the total prison population, almost all of them drawn from the country's slums and dirt-poor villages.

Human-rights organizations are lobbying the Philippine Senate to pass a bill that would mandate separate courts and more humane treatment for juveniles. But it's not certain that senators, who are worried about a rising crime rate, will pass it. "Our prisons are a microcosm of our society," says a senior Justice Department official. "The poor, especially children, have no one to protect them."

Minors in the country's jails confront conditions that even adults find brutal. The stench of rotten food and sweat in Bilibid's cells is overpowering. Sixty prisoners, both children and adults, are crammed into the 5-meter-by-7-meter cells. When riots break out, children are often pushed onto the front lines. "If the rival gangs want to fight each other," says a thin 16-year-old nicknamed JP, "they force us to fight each other first. That gives them an excuse to start."

Juveniles are abused more drastically than that by older prisoners. "Making children into male whores is common in prison, but the kids will never talk about it directly," says University of the Philippines sociologist Randy Davide, who has conducted several studies in Bilibid. Some victims can be identified by the scars on their faces. Others hide nails that still bear fingernail polish. "I've seen it happening at night," says Jun Jun, a 13-year-old who arrived in the prison several weeks ago and hangs his head when asked if he has been sexually abused. "We choose one of us to stand guard at night," he says. "It's to wake up whoever is... having bad dreams."

Even more disturbingly, some of the child prisoners have ended up on death row. The Philippine Constitution does not allow the execution of minors. But police, the courts and social workers assume that most teens are over 18 and rarely take the time to track down the birth certificates of impoverished children who are convicted of capital offenses like murder and rape. A minor on death row, Jelly Rodique Lipa, was recently saved at the last minute by a human-rights group that found his birth certificate after a six-month search, proving he was under 18. Five more minors are awaiting execution; the state is disputing their ages. Supreme Court spokesman Ismail Khan says the fault does not lie with the government. "The judges do not have the responsibility to look into the cases," meaning making sure the children are over 18 before sentencing them to death. "They just act on the evidence before them."

A similar disregard helps explain how many of these kids ended up in jail in the first place. Most have been locked up for robbery and rape, which carry sentences ranging from about four years to life in prison. Their cases are handled by overworked public defendants, who often advise them to plead guilty in order to speed the process along. Jun Jun, charged with rape last year, when he was 12, says he was on his way to a juvenile-detention center when he was told it was full. Without another word, the guards simply dropped him at Bilibid. No one is pursuing his case; no one is filing an appeal on his behalf.

Such callousness is all too familiar to the poor in the Philippines, a country where the richest 20 percent of the population has an average income 14 times that of the poorest 14 percent. The estimated 40 million poor have little say in policymaking and generally have no way to seek redress legally. Many squatters in Manila occupy land that was promised to be transferred to their parents decades ago. In the countryside a system of patronage exists, so that without money, defendants have virtually no access to legal protection. "Our prisons are where we house the poor in this country," says Davide.

The government complains of a poverty of its own: it is running a budget deficit of $3 billion and struggling to raise revenues. The Justice Department is asking Japan to pay for a new rehabilitation center for juveniles, for instance. The Supreme Court is hoping to set up a system of 70 judges who will try minors separately, but most of the designated judges are reluctant to take up the added caseloads. More extensive reforms than that will be needed, however, to keep children out of places like Bilibid.