Good conduct scandal

by  Luis Adrian Hidalgo

IT WAS NOT common knowledge that amendments to Republic Act (RA) 10592 have expanded the coverage of the good conduct time allowance (GCTA) law. Not too many were aware that a well-meaning law reduces the length of an inmate’s imprisonment for good behaviour. 

But the law was suddenly thrust into the public consciousness when the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed in August 2019 that convicted rapist-murderer Antonio Sanchez could soon walk free.

Sanchez in 1995 was sentenced to seven 40-year prison terms for the rape-slay of University of the Philippines Los Baños student Eileen Sarmenta and for the killing of  her schoolmate Allan Gomez in 1993. But there he was, reports said, among the 11,000 inmates whose good behaviour made them eligible for early release. 

The idea of setting free a prisoner convicted of a heinous crime sparked public outrage, which media coverage highlighted. The news reports recounted the reactions of concerned groups, friends and classmates of the slain students and the bereaved families, expressing anger as well as sorrow. But Sanchez was not the only one. Three suspects sentenced to reclusion perpetua in 1999 for the brutal murder of the Chiong sisters in Cebu would also regain their freedom. The victims’ families joined the fray and called for a more stringent process on the release of convicts under the provisions of RA 10592. 

It did not take long for government officials to speak out, questioning the implementation of the GCTA law. Public clamor soon forced the BuCor and the DOJ to suspend the releases and review the law.

Senator Richard Gordon, chair of justice and blue ribbon committees (left), confronts Department of Justice (DOJ) and Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) officials about an order requiring the approval of the DOJ secretary in releasing convicts accused of heinous crime on a September 9 hearing. | Photo from the Senate, PRIB Photo by Cesar Tomambo.

GCTA and the failed prison system

Media’s initial coverage referred to the GCTA law, noting that the controversy was over the eligibility of those convicted of heinous crimes like Sanchez. But most media reports merely lined up different interpretations provided by different officials, leaving it to the audience to figure out who was making sense or not. (See “Good conduct time allowance controversy: More explanation, analysis needed”)

Some news accounts discussed the coverage of the GCTA and whether these included heinous crimes convicts, but failed to clarify the legal questions at issue. 

The ensuing backlash prompted both the House of Representatives and the Senate to launch their own investigations into the controversy. 

The Senate’s marathon hearings began on September 2, 2019 and focused on naming whose heads should roll. So much time was given to identifying the culprits, but having no judicial powers, the Senate exercise was just so much pointless noise. (See “The BuCor controversy: Media must broaden discourse”)

The inquiry soon moved toward other related concerns, such as corruption in the BuCor. Most media reports made much of what politicians said, although no one seemed to be able to point to solutions. The eligibility issue, which was what prompted the inquiries in the first place, was effectively side-lined.

Moving the discourse forward

The Senate investigations only further established what was already clear – that the corruption and other issues in BuCor is a can of worms hiding in plain sight. The case illustrated that media had failed to give the prison system and all its ills much time or space, and it took a controversy like the GCTA for it to capture media attention. 

And yet the attention was short-lived. As soon as the politicians turned their attention to other matters, media did the same. Media’s fixation on politics is limited, unfortunately, to recording political talk. 

The GCTA fiasco is just one incident. There will be more. Media might prod government to find solutions. Journalists should find the answer to the question: What can be done about a failed prison system?


The President’s man falls

Photo from Bucor PIO Facebook page

NICANOR FAELDON seems to have a knack for landing in the middle of controversies. Not surprising, as his military career was not without excitement and color.

A former marine captain, Faeldon took part in two coup attempts against the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – the so-called Oakwood Mutiny in 2003 and the Manila Peninsula Siege in 2007, perpetrated by the Magdalo, a group of officers from various branches of the armed forces, to which Faeldon formerly belonged. He was able to elude arrest for both incidents until 2010 when he surrendered. Faeldon was among the Magdalo mutineers who received a grant of amnesty from President Benigno Aquino III. The group’s two known leaders went on to run and hold public office. Antonio Trillanes served two terms in the Philippine Senate from 2007 to 2019, while Gary Alejano served as the representative of the Magdalo Party-list from 2013 to 2019.

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