ICRC in the Philippines seeks to
improve detention conditions through holistic judicial reform,
better health care and family contact arranged by the Philippine
In a run-down 19th century building originally
constructed by Spanish colonial rulers in the heart of the
Philippine capital of Manila, almost 4,000 male inmates live
in a space designed for just 1,800 people. Sandwiched between
shopping malls and a metro station, the Manila City Jail — or ‘Old
Bilibid’, which translates simply as ‘old prison’ — is
the quintessential urban detention centre.
In one of the jail’s
14 packed ‘dormitories’ — concrete
walls roofed with corrugated iron — ICRC deputy protection
coordinator Kirsty Macdonald visits Ruben*, a security detainee
(a designation given to those accused of crimes related to
the country’s internal
conflicts) who has been in the jail for more than four years,
but has yet to see his trial completed.
Inside the dorms,
makeshift sleeping compartments have been constructed out
of plywood and cardboard. Given the overcrowding, only some
inmates can have these; usually they are taken by those detainees
with some power or financial means.
Ruben slept on the floor
in the hall for two years and has only recently saved up
enough money to buy his own compartment — so
small, it barely has space for his mattress.
worse,” explains Macdonald, “is that the jail
is built on a low-lying area, so every time it rains the dorms are flooded
with a foot of water.”
Some inmates with power or money manage to get
sleeping compartments on the first floor, above the flood
waters. Others, like Ruben, are on the ground floor and regularly
have to deal with soaked clothing and sodden mattresses
visit with Ruben is typical of detainee visits the ICRC conducts
all over the world. Questions are asked about his living
conditions, contact with his family and the progress of his
case through the courts, something about which Ruben is increasingly
A call for action
The visit over, Macdonald has other appointments.
The reason: the ICRC has expanded its detention-visit programme
in recent years into a much broader and more ambitious initiative
titled ‘Call for Action’. The idea is simple — to
improve living conditions in Philippine jails and to help
speed up the judicial process so that detainees do not
languish for years before their cases are decided
task is complex and daunting. So today Macdonald will also
meet with jail warden Ruel Rivera to discuss the installation
of a drainage system that would reduce the flooding. From
there, the conversation moves on to a tougher challenge:
the length of time inmates stay in Old Bilibid.
are staggering. Of 3,986 detainees, just 210 have been brought
to trial and convicted. The others are waiting for their
case to be heard or completed. One man has been there 17
years and has still not been sentenced. Typical waiting times
can range from five to ten years
The delays are a source of
frustration not just to the inmates, but also to Rivera,
who must cope with a massively overcrowded jail, simply because
the judicial system is so slow and complex.
Cases often move
from the police, to the prosecutors, to the courts and back
again, each time passing through the hands of officials who
may be unacquainted with how long the individual has already
been detained and who are already overburdened with a huge
backlog of cases.
That’s why the ICRC is also working,
together with jail officials and judges, in a task force
aimed at identifying the longest-serving detainees and trying
to get their cases dealt with more quickly. “Sometimes,” says
just a question of one piece of paper that’s missing,
that needs to be taken to the relevant court.”
Their day in court
On this day, Macdonald’s focus is
on helping find some remedies through the country’s
complex legal system. After the jail visit, she is off to
see Judge Marlo Magdoza-Malagar, an executive judge who coordinates
trial courts and can, perhaps, speed up some of the slowest
Immediately upon entering Malagar’s office in
city hall, the difficulties the judge is facing become clear.
In her outer office, several assistants sit at cramped desks,
each piled high with paper work. A couple of antiquated computers
don’t look up to the job of coping with the sheer extent
In Judge Malagar’s own office, the picture
is similar. It is a tiny windowless space, where each available
surface seems to have become a resting place for case files.
But the judge herself is upbeat. After contacting a variety
of courts across Manila about especially slow-moving cases,
she reports that several of them actually replied to her
on the same day; excellent progress, she believes.
must cooperate, or nothing will move,” says Malagar,
a long-time supporter of the Call for Action. “We are
talking about a total overhaul of the [judicial] system,
so the challenge is huge.”
“My husband is getting
In another part of Manila, at the headquarters
of the Philippine Red Cross, family members of those detained
come for emotional and financial support through the years
Here mothers can talk to counsellors about the
difficulties of coping alone and can receive funding to help
them finance the often-long journeys from their homes to
the prisons where husbands, sons or sisters are being held.
those gathered at the Red Cross building is Ami,* a woman
with seven children, whose husband has now been detained
for 12 years. Ami’s youngest child was born just as
his father was imprisoned and all her children, she says, “are
always asking me when he is going to be released”.
by the Philippine Red Cross and with support from the ICRC,
Ami manages to visit her husband four times a year — a
long journey which involves a full day’s
She weeps as she asks again for news of his case.
She, like so many families of detainees, has received little
information from the authorities and, although she has now
heard that his trial has been completed, neither she nor
her husband has heard anything about a verdict or a release
“We share stories,” she says of her visits
with her husband, “and
I give him news of the children.”
“But,” she continues wearily, “my
husband is getting old.”
By Imogen Foulkes
Imogen Foulkes is the BBC’s United Nations correspondent based in Geneva,
*Not their real names.
In the men’s quarters of Manila’s old city
jail, almost 4,000 inmates live in a space designed for
Photo: ©L. Piojo/ICR
must cooperate or nothing will move… We are
talking about a total overhaul of the [judicial]
system, so the challenge is huge.”
Marlo Magdoza-Malagar, judge of the Metropolitan
Trial Court in Manila.
An evolving mission
This holistic approach to fostering more humane jail
conditions for all detainees is just one example of
the evolution of ICRC’s approach over the decades.
The organization began visiting detainees and civilian
internees during wartime nearly 100 years ago and its
right to visit detainees during conflict was recognized
officially in the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
After the proxy conflicts of the Cold War, the nature
of warfare changed — with a growing number of
internal or non-international conflicts — and
ICRC delegates increasingly found themselves visiting
people detained on security grounds who were mixed
with inmates accused of common-law crimes.
In the Philippines, for example, where the ICRC first
began working more than 60 years ago, its primary role
was visiting detainees accused of taking part in the
country’s ongoing internal conflicts. Half a
century on, this work remains one of the ICRC’s
biggest efforts in the country, visiting around 700
people detained on security grounds and providing support
for their families.
Because these ‘security detainees’ are
held in civilian jails — where a conservative
estimate puts the total inmate population at 130,000 — it
soon became clear that the ICRC’s mission would
have to address the general prison population as well.
“We would be visiting five or six security detainees
in a jail with a population of 4,000,” says ICRC
protection coordinator Sébastien Bourgoin, “and
what we saw were the appalling conditions that everyone
had to endure, regardless of the reason for their detention.”