For several weeks now, the country has been glued on national television, keenly following the latest political controversy focused on what many believed was an inappropriate release of prisoners convicted by the courts for carrying out various heinous crimes. The early release of prisoners happened because of confusion in the implementation of a law on Good Conduct Time Allowances (GCTA) – Republic Act 10592 passed in 2013.

The legislative inquiry in the Senate has, so far, revealed what could have been a thriving business of some Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) personnel to offer early releases of convicted prisoners under the GCTA law in exchange for cash. A wife of a convict at a minimum security facility at the New Bilibid Prisons (NBP) came out to expose the illegal transactions.

It was not established if top BuCor officials knew about the corrupt activities, but it was enough proof to indict the people running the country’s penal system.

Six years ago when lawmakers enacted RA 10592 to amend and liberalize a pre-war and colonial law on GCTA – Act 3815 or the Revised Penal Code of 1932 – the intention was to decongest the country’s jail system, which, according to the Commission on Audit (COA), was more than 400 times overcrowded at the end of December 2018.

There were nearly 140,000 people cramped into the country’s jail system, which ideally should only have about 25,000 people. Under the government manual, as cited by COA, the ideal habitable floor area for each inmate is 4.7 square meters and the ideal maximum number of inmates per cell should only be 10. The government’s campaign against illegal drugs contributed to the overcrowding of these jails.

Also to blame are structural defects in the country’s justice system due to high number of unresolved cases as well as backlogs.

Imagine a suspect in a simple felony as mobile phone snatching or theft, spending more than six years in the city jail awaiting trial for a crime that could be punished by imprisonment of less than six years. By the time the court hands down the verdict, he or she could have already served the prison term in the NBP in Muntinlupa.

The authors of RA 10592, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, only wanted to decongest the provincial, city and municipal jails and facilities supervised by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) under the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

That was why under Section 1 of the RA 10592, the lawmakers wanted to exempt recidivists, escapees, persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) with prior convictions, and those facing charges of heinous crimes, from getting out of preventive imprisonment.

The law was supposed to cover only people who are not convicted yet and are, therefore, in facilities run by the BJMP. Once a court sentences a person, he or she would be transferred to a facility under the Bureau of Corrections under the Department of Justice. Convicts are transferred to the NBP in Muntinlupa or in any of the six regional penal colonies – Davao, Zamboanga, Palawan, Mindoro, Leyte and in Mandaluyong where women convicts are held.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon had acknowledged lapses made by the upper house of Congress when senators added Section 3 in RA 10592, which BuCor authorities had interpreted liberally to include convicted prisoners. The exclusions, particularly those convicted of heinous crimes, were not stated clearly.

BuCor officials took advantage of this confusion to make it possible for former Calauan mayor Antonio Sanchez and other high-profile prisoners, including several Chinese nationals convicted of drug-related cases, to be freed based on RA 10592 or the GCTA law.

When the Supreme Court allowed the retroactive implementation of the law, convicts who were inside the NBP long before the law was passed in 2013 were given the same second chance to be freed earlier than their sentences.

As many of 20,000 prisoners were released since the law took effect, including nearly 2,000 convicts who were sentenced to life imprisonment due to heinous crimes, like Sanchez, the killers of the Chiong sisters in Cebu, fraternity members responsible for Dennis Venturina’s death, and Chinese drug lords.

As the controversy exploded in the red faces of former Marine Corps captain Nicanor Faeldon and other BuCor officials, President Rodrigo Duterte wasted no time in firing Faeldon, and ordered the surrender of nearly 2,000 convicts who may have been prematurely freed based on the reduction of their sentences served based on good behavior.

It was a master stroke to put an end to a controversy that might expose a much bigger issue, but the senators are bent on digging deeper into the issue, looking at a bigger picture of reforming the entire penal system of the country as well as the justice system, which could be a source of corruption, inequality and injustice that feeds into the country’s longstanding social problems, including a long-running Maoist-led insurgency in the countryside.

The problem of overcrowded jails in the country has been there for years. The New Bilibid Prisons was built in the 1940s when the country’s population was less than 20 million. The country now has more than 105 million Filipinos. Municipal, city and provincial jails are much smaller than the facilities run by the Department of Justice through the Bureau of Corrections.

Former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III was aware of the overcrowding problem and moved to decongest jails through RA 10592. Former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno helped speed up the justice system by improving public access to courts, releasing more than 10,000 prisoners by enhancing the “justice on wheels” program that started under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Enterprising BuCor personnel may have exploited the system but the Duterte administration must stop appointing inept, incompetent and ineffective people who have no expertise, knowledge, and training to run key and sensitive agencies, including the prison systems.

Faeldon simply cannot claim or worse, feign, innocence or ignorance of the corrupt practices inside the bureau. He could have consulted top-caliber lawyers on the implementation of RA 10592, because it was really absurd to allow prisoners convicted of heinous crimes to be freed based on the GCTA law. Persons deprived of liberty under preventive imprisonment, and who had committed heinous crimes, are not eligible to be freed under the same law.

It is about time the three branches of government – executive, legislative and judiciary – joined hands to reform the entire justice system, improve the penal system, build larger facilities for prisoners as the country’s population expands, and end corruption.

Before coming to office three years ago, Duterte promised to stop corruption. In less than three years, he will step down without addressing this problem.