The Philippines has released nearly 10,000 prison inmates as the country races to halt the spread of coronavirus in its congested facilities, according to a Supreme Court official.
“The court is very much aware of the congested situation in our prisons,” Associate Supreme Court Justice Mario Victor Leonen told journalists on Saturday as he announced that 9,731 inmates had been released.
The move followed a directive issued by the Supreme Court to lower courts to release those awaiting trial in prison because they could not afford bail, Leonen told reporters.
Also among those who were ordered released were prisoners sentenced to jail for six months or below, as well as qualified elderly and ailing prisoners. They were released between March 17 to April 29, according to news reports.
Physical distancing is all but impossible in the country’s prison system, where cells are sometimes filled to five times their capacity due to inadequate infrastructure and a slow-moving and overburdened judicial system.
Outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, have been reported at some of the most overcrowded jails in the Philippines, affecting both inmates and staff.
Among those that have reported outbreaks is the Quezon City Jail in the capital, Manila, a facility so crowded that inmates take turns sleeping on staircases and open-air basketball courts.
The worst outbreaks so far are at two prisons in the central island of Cebu, where two city jails have announced a combined 348 infections among more than 8,000 inmates as of Friday.
More than 450 jails currently hold some 136,000 inmates, according to government data, and health experts are warning that the situation is a ticking time-bomb.
The recent outbreaks prompted calls from rights groups for the early release of prisoners charged with non-violent offences as well as the sick and elderly.
Prison overcrowding has become an even greater problem since President Rodrigo Duterte launched a drug crackdown in 2016 that has seen thousands sent to prison.
As of Saturday, the Philippines has recorded 8,928 coronavirus cases and 603 deaths.