Aquino Sacks his Prison Chief

Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III has forced the resignation of the country’s prisons chief after publication of a case that highlights the culture of impunity for wealthy wrongdoers.

Ernesto Diokno, a personal friend of Aquino’s, was forced out Tuesday after television cameras caught Antonio Leviste, the former governor of Batangas Province, in an office building in the Makati business district in Manila, instead of in his jail cell where he was supposed to be serving a 12-year sentence for killing an aide. At the time Leviste told reporters who had caught him that he was freed temporarily for treatment for a dental problem.

Leviste is hardly the first murderer to be sprung as the wealthy use their money and influence to secure furloughs – or to have luxury accommodations in the prison itself. Chief among them was Joseph “Erap” Estrada, the former president who was impeached and sacked from his job on corruption charges, and who was given a life sentence – in his own luxurious home in Tarlac Province. He was ultimately pardoned by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Nor was Erap the only official to be pardoned. Claudio Teehankee Jr., whose father was a former chief justice, was freed by Arroyo despite the fact that he had committed murder. Leviste apparently claimed that Gloria had promised to grant him clemency as well, but that the promise was withdrawn for “political reasons.”

Antonio Trillanes, a Filipino naval officer who led a failed coup attempt to topple Arroyo actually managed to campaign for the upper house of congress from his jail cell in 2007 and won. He was escorted to the swearing-in ceremony under heavy military guard. He was ultimately given amnesty by Aquino without having to serve out his jail term.

Actually, the sacking of Diokno as head of the prison system could well be a step up and an encouraging comment on Aquino’s regime. The president himself announced Diokno’s departure on national television after he received a report identifying 11 individuals as being responsible for allowing Leviste’s freedom.

Leviste himself argued that he had been allowed so-called “living out” privileges because he has been diagnosed with colon cancer and was given leave for a medical checkup. However, officers who arrested him said his furlough was unauthorized.

Diokno’s firing came a week after he said in an interview with local media that he had no plans to resign and that his command responsibility didn’t extend to keeping an eye on Leviste. He is a long-time friend of the president’s from the time he declared his loyalty to Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, during coup attempts against the late former president.

Diokno isn’t the first official to be fired by Aquino. Others he has fired include Prisco Nilo, the administrator of the Pagasa weather bureau after a disastrous forecast of the path of a typhoon last August, as well as Vicente Romano III, who was forced out as tourism undersecretary after the agency allegedly plagiarized a Poland tourism logo for a promotion campaign.

Aquino, in a press conference, told reporters Diokno’s departure would free him to appoint others who would seek to clean out the prison system, which is rife with abuses. Jail wardens, who are paid almost nothing, accept bribes from rich inmates who can either buy their freedom, as Leviste did, or decorate their jail cells comfortably with air conditioners and other amenities.

One who did that was former Congressman Romeo Jalosjos, who was given two life terms for raping a child. Reporters discovered Jolosjos had a queen-size bed and air conditioner in a spacious room in the maximum security wing of the New Bilibid Prison. Jalosjos was granted freedom after serving 16 years in prison.

There is a long string of other prison outrages. Perhaps the most notorious case is that of Andal Ampatuan Jr., charged with being the mastermind behind the worst massacre of journalists anywhere on earth, who was photographed by ABS-CBN playing basketball with prison personnel. Relatives of the 57 victims murdered in the November, 2009 slaughter -- which took the lives of 38 journalists and 20 political allies of an opposition candidate for mayor -- complained that Ampatuan and other accomplices had air conditioning and Internet connections in their cells, which they would hide during inspections.

Another well-to-do youth, Jason Ivler, who was jailed for the murder of another youth during a traffic altercation, was discovered in a Quezon City jail with liquor and women inside his jail cell. Ivler was subsequently transferred to another facility.

The president told reporters it was time to look for a corrections chief that could push for reforms. But the ability to actually clean up the mess would probably require virtually a new prison system. The Bureau of Prison Management in 2010 was allocated of only P4.5 billion (US$103.65 million to administer seven national detention centers and penal farms across the country. The Bureau of Corrections, which supervises city and provincial jails, received only R1.4 billion.

According to an analysis by the Manila-based risk assessment firm Pacific Strategies & Assessments, “Such allocations can hardly compensate for the daily operations and maintenance of prison facilities. In meals alone, the Bureau of Corrections and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology already spend P3 million per day on meals alone, which translates to P1.10 billion per year, eating up 18 percent of the combined budget.”