When a self-confessed gunman admitted to police investigators that the order to kill journalist Percival Mabasa, aka Percy Lapid, came from a Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) official, it was no longer a surprise.

In his affidavit, Joel Escorial said he was told by a “middleman,” a Leyte townmate who was a convict at the National Bilibid Prisons (NBP), that a BuCor official had planned the killing and asked leaders of three criminal gangs to raise money for the contract killing.

The middleman, alias Jun Villamor, was murdered inside the prisons on the same day Interior and Local Government Secretary Benhur Abalos presented Escorial to the media after he surrendered to police days earlier.

In his affidavit, Escorial said Villamor told him it was BuCor head Gerard Bantag who ordered the kill.

Bantag, a graduate of the Philippine National Police Academy in 1996, joined the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) service before he was made prisons director general in 2019.

The BJMP is an agency under Abalos’s DILG but the Bureau of Corrections is under the Department of Justice. But both agencies handle law offenders. Those still facing trials for criminal offenses are with BJMP while convicted criminals are moved to the BuCor.

Bantag got mad at Mabasa when the journalist kept on attacking BuCor officials for corruption, including his ownership of a posh mansion in a gated residential village and a fleet of luxury vehicles.

Bantag was also linked to mysterious deaths of persons deprived of liberty (PDLs). Some of these high-profile PDLs were believed to have been freed from NBP but it was made to appear they had died.

The horror tales inside the country’s national penitentiary were shocking to the public but these were not new. These things have been happening since the late 1980s.

Remember the killing of Jaime Ferrer, the interior secretary under Cory Aquino’s government? When he was gunned down near his home in Parañaque City, it was initially blamed on the Commmunist hit quad, the Sparrow Unit, because of Ferrer’s staunch anti-Communist views.

But a deeper investigation showed a group of convicts from the NBP were allowed to leave the prisons to kill Ferrer. There was a deep collusion between the people who wanted Ferrer dead and some prison officials who used convicts as hitmen.

Later, multi-awarded filmmaker Eric Matti made a film, “On the Job,” to depict a team of guns-for-hire inside a prison system, or convicts sent out to kill a target and returning to their cells after a hit.

Many Filipinos can relate to the series of “On the Job” films, which even won an acting award for actor John Arcilla abroad, because of what is happening now in the Bureau of Corrections.

If prisoners were allowed to step out from the NBP to carry out killings in the past, prisoners can now outsource the contract hit through fellow gang mates outside the prison walls.

These were done through the use of mobile phones, devices banned in the prison facilities but are easily smuggled in.

There are other things that mobile phones can do. Drugs, liquor, beer and luxury items were brought in right under the noses of prison guards and officials. Sex trade and other forms of entertainment were also allowed inside the penitentiary.

Recently, retired general Gregorio Catapang displayed 7,000 cans of Red Horse beer sold for P1,000 per can inside prisons. Weapons, mobile phones, drugs, and other contrabands seized in the NBP confirmed a lucrative trade inside the Bureau of Corrections.

It was impossible for Bantag and other officials not to notice these illegal activities. Bantag’s supporters said the former BJMP regional director was “clean” and “straight.” However, if the illegal trade was happening under his watch, he could not feign innocence.

The corruption inside the prison systems was so widespread and deep, a major overhaul of the justice system was needed.

For one, the number of prison guards was inadequate to manage the NBP which was built for 6,000 convicts but has a population of nearly five times at 27,000 PDLs.

The overcrowding has also forced prison guards to use PDLs to police themselves, developing a system for gangs to discipline their own members and to prevent prison riots, which the correction officers cannot handle.

In time, the relationship between prison authorities and PDLS was diluted and blurred by a bond of friendship and familiarity, and an opportunity to make money.

Prison guards were also inadequately paid and were not given a pension plan by the government, forcing many to do business with prisoners.

It was easy to sell P1,000 for a can of beer or P300,000 for a unit of the iPhone mobile phone.

Since the time of Cory Aquino when the Ferrer killings exposed dark secrets in NBP, BuCor officials have vowed to clean up the prisons system, but corruption had become so deeply rooted it needed more than a transformation and overhaul of the entire system.

Building a much larger corrections facility in a new site or decongesting the NBP by creating regional facilities could help manage the overcrowding. There were two huge facilities built under former president Rodrigo Duterte to serve as mega drug rehabilitation sites in Luzon and Mindanao but were not used.

The Bureau of Corrections can use these facilities temporarily as a new prison facility will rise on Mindoro island. But the most urgent concern is to stop the illegal activities inside the NBP.

It will be difficult for the people inside the corrections facility to turn a new leaf if prison authorities continue to exploit and abuse them. Some of the PDLs are not really habitual offenders but were forged into dangerous weapons and turned into hardcore criminals by a rotten system.

The time to reform the prisons facilities and the country’s corrupt and ineffective criminal justice system is now.

It has to start with the community, the police, the prosecutors, the courts, and finally the corrections system.

But the system is far from perfect. Every step has its own unique problem. Perhaps, the reform should start from the top. Leaders should be seen as upright and dedicated to reforms, helping inspire others by leading by example.