Extreme heat takes withering toll in teeming Philippine jails

MANILA — Amid a historic heat wave in the Philippines, few places have been harder to bear than the country’s overcrowded jails and prisons.

As temperatures rose past 122 degrees in parts of the country last month, jails reported thousands of cases of boils, rashes and skin disease among inmates. Authorities raced to reduce the crowding, which was caused by a draconian six-year campaign against drugs started by Rodrigo Duterte when he was president.

Philippine detention facilities are the fourth most congested in the world, according to data from the London-based Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research. Two-thirds of the jails are overburdened. Some have more than 20 times the inmate population they are capable of handling, according to national data.

In Muntinlupa City, south of Manila, almost 900 inmates crowd into a facility with seven cells, built for only 41 people. To escape the heat of the overcrowded cells, 100 people — usually the elderly and sickly — are allowed to sleep on a roof deck, which also functions as an assembly area, basketball court, library and place of worship. “It’s not supposed to be like that, but we have to do it for humanitarian considerations,” said warden Ricky Pegalan.

The Philippine Supreme Court, stressing for the first time the effects of climate change on prison populations, recently ordered judges across the country to visit jails “for the sole purpose of determining how [persons deprived of liberty] are affected by this heat wave.”

Across the world, extreme heat is taking a disproportionate toll on incarcerated people, say prison reform advocates and environmental scientists.

In the United States, nearly 45 percent of detention facilities have seen an increase in hazardous heat days from 1982 to 2020, according to a recent study in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability. In Cambodia, advocates for political prisoners say the heat in detention facilities has been akin to torture. And in Hong Kong, lawmakers have proposed providing air conditioning in jails, but the idea has been opposed by the city’s security chief, who told reporters: “Prisons don’t have air conditioners. That’s common sense and our common understanding.”


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In few places, however, has extreme heat so exacerbated prison conditions as in the Philippines. The heat index, a measure of temperature and humidity that reflects how heat feels to the human body, has smashed records across the country this year, prompting officials to close schools and causing power outages in some areas.

On a recent afternoon, a Washington Post reporter joined a group of prison reform advocates on a visit to the Manila City Jail. Hundreds of detainees squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder in spots of shade or milled around outdoors, away from the sweltering heat of the second-floor landings where they slept. Moving through their sleeping quarters, a thermometer held by an advocate beeped red with the alert “HIGH,” an indicator the temperature had hit a danger zone.

Two weeks earlier, after a basketball game, a brawl had broken out among inmates that left seven injured, and the jail’s administrators said they believed the intense heat had contributed to the unrest. The heat index that day was 117 degrees Fahrenheit — the highest ever recorded in Manila. “Behavior comes from emotions, and physically [they] feel uncomfortable,” said warden Lino Soriano.

Under Duterte’s presidency, jail occupancy in the Philippines spiked by 600 percent, according to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology. This has eased slightly under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. — but not enough, say watchdog groups.

“The long-term solution would be policy, legislation,” said Raymund Narag, an associate professor in criminology at Southern Illinois University. Without it, jail administrators can implement only “stopgap measures” such as improving ventilation and allowing inmates to have more baths, he added.

Mico Clavano, spokesperson for the Department of Justice under Marcos Jr., did not respond to requests for comment.

In mid-May, Narag toured the Manila City Jail, measuring the heat index for a proposal he was making to jail administrators for new ventilators. The jail has a hydration hour, when inmates drink water at the same time, and it even converted a fishpond into a makeshift pool. Soriano, the warden, said the long-term solution would be to relocate the facility to a bigger and breezier building.

An inmate at the Manila City Jail, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his privacy, told The Post that he was arrested last year on drug charges. Standing beside a gallon water jug as other inmates filled their cups during hydration hour, he said he volunteers for the infirmary. He hands out medication to older inmates, he said, and rushes to help when someone collapses from the heat.

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