How do we jail a problem like GMA?
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2011-12-04
Our society is stuck with an “Exemption to the rule” mindset. Given the opportunity, many Filipinos would rather be accorded the right to be exempted from the rule than be compelled to follow it. Seen as an elite privilege, even the bottom rank in our socio-economic ladder would like to savor the cheap thrill of being given special treatment.

All the wasted time and energy debating where former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) should be jailed after she leaves the St. Luke’s Global Hospital can be traced to this “Exemption to the rule” Filipino hang-up. All these hassles and debates would have been unnecessary if we had a tradition of following the rules. Having allowed convicted former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada to be jailed under special conditions, we now find ourselves mired in this senseless debate on where to put GMA.

There are human and security considerations to factor when we are determining where to incarcerate a former president. It is a fact that our prisons can be considered as sub-human living conditions. The dogs of rich pet owners live under better shelter and nutrition conditions when compared to prison life here.

If ever GMA manages to escape, that will be a big embarrassment here and abroad for the President Noynoy Aquino (P-Noy) administration. It will be worse if GMA is harmed or killed while in prison. The security aspect of her incarceration cannot be overlooked. A relative or friend of one of those victims of suspected extra-judicial liquidation of dissidents during the GMA regime could hate her enough to want to harm or kill her.

Sometime around May of this year, when the special privileges in our prison system were exposed after former Batangas Governor Tony Leviste was seen gallivanting around Makati City, Senator Miriam D. Santiago made a proposal to allow “Pay as you stay” privileges to moneyed prisoners. This deserves serious public discussion and consideration, regardless if this is to apply to GMA or not. It is humane while it also realistically balances the repeated violations of equal treatment of prisoners in our jails.

Under the present system, bribe money given to prison guards and officials enable the rich prisoners to live under better conditions. They get to have better living quarters and eat better food. Sen. Santiago proposed to officially charge the rich convicts for the privileges they want to enjoy so this goes to the government as revenues instead of the pockets of corrupt prison guards and officials.

Sen. Santiago qualifies that this “Pay as you stay” privilege should be given only to those whose convictions fall under certain crime categories. Those with convictions for heinous crimes and with an established track record for violence cannot qualify. The “Pay as you stay” program cannot apply to maximum-security prisoners.

Sen. Santiago’s proposal is humane in that it at least allows those who can afford it to avail of more acceptable living conditions. Our prisons, without exception, would be categorized as sub-human living conditions. While it is true that prison is penalty for sins against society, it is un-Christian to make inmates suffer from the deprivations brought about by sub-human living conditions. Prison is intended to be a reformatory and not a torture chamber duly sanctioned by law.
What wrinkles in the Santiago proposal is that it perpetuates the very foundation of the lack of social justice in our country. Must the rich be the only ones entitled to acceptable human living conditions? Must the rich be the only ones entitled to eat a decent meal — fresh ingredients, reasonable quantity and nutritious?

Sen. Santiago believes that “Pay as you stay” can be a mechanism for improving the living conditions of the underprivileged inmates. In other words, channel the revenues from “Pay as you stay” to improving the meals of the underprivileged prisoners. That way the underprivileged inmates get to benefit and do not resent the “Pay as you stay” program.

The idea takes off from what it already being practiced in some American states like California. In her April 9, 2007 “For $82 a day, booking a cell in a 5-star jail” article in the New York Times, Jennifer Steinhauer discussed this innovative prison system.

Steinhauer wrote: “For roughly $75 to $127 a day, these convicts — who are known in the self-pay parlance as “clients” — get a small cell behind a regular door, distance of some amplitude from violent offenders and, in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer on which to compose a novel, or perhaps a song.”

She added: “Many of the over-nighters are granted work furlough, enabling them to do most of their time on the job, returning to the jail simply to go to bed (often following a strip search, which granted is not so five-star).”

“The clients usually share a cell, but otherwise mix little with the ordinary nonpaying inmates, who tend to be people arrested and awaiting arraignment, or federal prisoners on trial or awaiting deportation and simply passing through,” Steinhauer said.

Steinhauer cited Stanley Goldman, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and has recommended the program to former clients. Goldman said: “The prisoners who are charged with nonviolent crimes and typically have no record are not in the best position to handle themselves in the general county facility.”

Sen. Santiago should refine her proposed “Pay as you stay” program and outline the mechanics as well as the parameters. Senator Santiago should show us just what kind of benefits can be derived from the “Pay as you stay” program — not just the financial returns but also what it contributes to the prison concept of reforming criminals.

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