Are terror-linked inmates "radicalizing" other convicts in the country's prisons?
There have been no confirmed cases yet, but authorities are working to avert the threat, keeping an eye on the movements of inmates identified as members of organisations deemed to be terrorist, officials said this week.
Under constant watch are inmates known to be members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group of the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Abu Sayyaf, both of which swore allegiance last year to the Islamic State (IS), an international extremist group responsible for executions and attacks that have drawn global condemnation.
The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) is also initiating moves to "sectorize" and "put a semblance of segregation" in the long-neglected New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City, said its director, Franklin Jesus Bucayu.
The congested facility has been beset by violence and controversy, including the proliferation of drugs and crime, and the princely lifestyle of high-profile inmates which came to light after authorities conducted two raids in December.
"There is that danger [of radicalization], but that has not happened. We have yet to confirm it. Of course, the problem in our prisons is the lack of facilities," Bucayu said.
"There's the danger because prisoners are mixed together. That (danger) is the implication, because there is too much congestion," he told the Inquirer.
Bucayu said prison security was "a national security matter."
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said her office was monitoring this possibility, given the risks.
"[But the BuCor management is] not seeing that there is an ongoing radicalization, especially in the IS," she said.
Some 14,500 inmates are currently jailed together in the maximum security compound of the 9-hectare Bilibid prison facility, the "high-risk" or violence prone and the suicidal together with the tamer ones.
The NBP is a prison that has virtually no bars, with inmates allowed to roam freely within its walls throughout the "eight decades it was neglected," said Bucayu.
Congestion at the NBP is currently at 165 per cent, an all-time high, he said.
"So when you mix them together, there is a greater likelihood of trouble. It's a security nightmare," he added.
Bucayu could not say just how many Abu Sayyaf and BIFF inmates were currently under watch, only that identifying them as such was complicated as they were sentenced to prison for cases like illegal possession of firearms and murder, and not for terrorist activities.
The official said he brought this concern to De Lima's attention by letter in November.
Bucayu told De Lima that the BuCor was handling "a good number of Islamist radicals," specifying them as members of the "Abu Sayyaf, the BIFF and suspected IS affiliates."
He said these inmates "continue to proselytize and recruit fellow inmates into their beliefs, further contaminating other inmates and defeating the reform agenda of the bureau."
While the tone of his November letter was unequivocal, Bucayu clarified in an interview that he merely meant to say there was such a "danger."
"We have yet to confirm or verify that. We are monitoring. But we have yet to have real evidence [to confirm that]," he said.