Back to Magazine


‘Old Bilibid’


The ICRC in the Philippines seeks to improve detention conditions through holistic judicial reform, better health care and family contact arranged by the Philippine Red Cross.

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.

“What’s 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

The 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 frustrated.

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

But the 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.

The statistics 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 Macdonald, “it’s 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 Manila’s metropolitan trial courts and can, perhaps, speed up some of the slowest cases.

Immediately upon entering Malagar’s office in Manila’s 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 of cases.

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.

“We 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 old”

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 of waiting.

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.

Among 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”.

Facilitated 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 travel.

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 date.

“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, Switzerland.
*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 1,800 people.
Photo: ©L. Piojo/ICR










“We 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.”


Contact Us