In the latest chapter of Philippine corruption drama, a police raid of a large prison complex revealed the lavish accommodations enjoyed by several drug lords. The luxury cells included jacuzzis, strip bars, and marble-tiled bathrooms. Police also uncovered methamphetamines, inflatable sex dolls, and a small concert stage, complete with strobe lights and a disco ball. The prisoners involved were found with over $40,000 each in their pockets, which they had kept on hand in order to pay off prison officials. It is incredible that such a blatant abuse of the system took place under the watch of government officials. As one anticorruption advocate noted, the scandal highlighted the frustrating truth that, due to widespread corruption in the prison system, even a conviction does not guarantee that justice has been done.
The Philippine example may be extreme, but the issue of prison corruption is an important one, and it receives far less attention from the anticorruption community than it should. To be sure, there have been a few studies about this topic, including the U4 Issue Report on Detention and Corrections, released in January 2015. But the U4 Report, while helpful in some ways, contains only broad, general assessments about the possible causes of corruption among prison officials. Moreover, the report considered the issue of prison corruption in isolation—it focused only on the effects of such corruption on the prison itself, without addressing the effects on the broader fight against corruption in society at large. While prosecutorial efforts and institutional reforms are crucial to anticorruption efforts, it is also extremely important that prison officials act in accordance with the law, and ensure that justice is, in fact, done.
Prison corruption–especially on the grand scale revealed in the Philippine case–can undermine the deterrent effects of criminal punishment, as perpetrators know that the most unappealing aspects of prison – isolation, lack of privacy, separation from loved ones – need not exist for those who can afford to pay bribes. This, in turn, may lead some potential criminals to view the expected costs of criminal activity as minimal, and to undertake illegal actions so long as they can generate enough revenue to sustain a comfortable lifestyle in prison. This is particularly troubling when one considers the type of behavior that is most likely to be affected by corruption in prison. As the outrageous Philippine scandal demonstrates, the criminals who benefit the most from prison corruption are well-connected individuals whose criminal activity can generate enough money to fund large bribes. Thus, corruption in prison can encourage crimes involving activities such as drug dealing, human trafficking, and, indeed, other types of corruption.
If prison corruption has the potential to encourage not just criminal activity, but also corruption in other sectors, why have studies been so limited, and focused primarily on the effects on the prison community alone? One reason may be that prisons tend to be more sheltered from the public view. Fewer people are likely to observe suspect behavior, and fewer still are likely to have paid a bribe to a prison official. Thus, even in communities where corruption is rampant in other areas of government, concerned citizens will be less likely to call for action in prisons, which remain largely out of sight. Additionally, as the U4 Issue Report noted, prisons tend to function like mini-governments within themselves. The incentive to intervene for a sector perceived as separate and apart from the rest of the community is limited when compared with the corrupt actions that are a part of more people’s daily lives. Measures to address the issue of prison corruption must account for the unique challenges presented by the isolation and secrecy that protects prison officials. With this in mind, here are a few potential steps that could be taken to alleviate the problem:
- Increase access. In order deal with the isolated nature of prisons, governments should grant access to media and civil society groups. Such groups would not only serve an important role in monitoring activities within the prison; they could also inspire the larger community to call for action by bringing corrupt acts to the public’s attention. Over time, more anticorruption organizations may become more cognizant of the need for reform.
- Targeted oversight. It may be helpful to increase oversight of the inmate populations most likely to take advantage of corrupt prison officials. As I discussed above, bribery in prison requires a strong network and access to financial resources. Perhaps, to decrease the opportunities for corrupt exchanges, anticorruption agencies and oversight bodies could pay particular attention, or even physically separate out, well-connected politicians or individuals tied to large criminal syndicates.
- Reporting incentives. Tactics used to persuade confidential informants to work with law enforcement might be utilized in the corruption context. Anticorruption agencies could negotiate deals with inmates who are willing to present credible claims against corrupt prison officials in exchange for shorter sentences, protection, or other benefits. Such efforts, however, must be subject to adequate oversight, to ensure that agency officials also refrain from abusing the system.
- Surveys. To improve information on the prevalence of corruption in prison, anticorruption agencies and watchdog organizations could also conduct corruption perception surveys specifically targeting incarcerated individuals. Such research would aid governments and activists in diagnosing, evaluating, and addressing the issue.
- Reentry outreach. Despite the isolation of prison itself, many incarcerated individuals will eventually be released back into the community. Organizations may find it useful to reach out to former prisoners to report acts of corruption, serve as witnesses, and even become advocates for reform. Ex-convicts could share their own personal experiences with bribery and expose injustices suffered by those who could not afford to pay bribes. This could provide individuals with a productive and empowering path to reentering the community.
Recognizing the problems the corruption in prison issue poses to broader efforts, the anticorruption community should work harder to remain vigilant and develop better solutions. The insidious nature of this issue demands a stronger response.