Suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Gerald Bantag on Thusday defended the swimming pool project at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) under his watch, saying it was intended for the training of jail personnel for disaster response.
“Kailangan pa rin namin knowledgeable para sa water rescue kasi any time magka-flood puwedeng gamitin. At gusto ko ituloy-tuloy 'yung water na 'yun sa scuba diving,” Bantag said in an interview on Dobol B TV.
(We need to be knowledgeable in water rescue in case of floods, and I want to continue the water training activities to scuba diving.)
Bantag said when he was still a warden at the Malabon City Jail, his personnel saved around 200 people in nearby areas during the onslaught of Tropical Cyclone Ondoy in 2009.
BuCor officer-in-charge Gregorio Catapang earlier revealed that they found an excavation site in the NBP located near a creek where he said people could flee from the national penitentiary.
Bantag has already denied claims that the excavation was done to build a supposed escape tunnel.
Catapang said there were no public funds appropriated for the excavation, and that it was kept secret under Bantag’s leadership.
According to Bantag, the swimming pool project was funded by a firm called ATOM in a joint venture agreement with BuCor.
Bantag said the agreement included ATOM donating 234 hectares of land in General Tinio where the BP facilities will be transferred.
“Zero ang gastos ng gobyerno doon. Ang kapalit noon ang NBP ide-develop ng nag-donate ng 234 hectares at magiging business center 'yan. At ang kikitain noon ay 35% para sa BuCor at 65% para sa developer,” he said.
(The government will spend nothing. In return the NBP will be developed by the donor into a business center. Around 35% of the profit will go to BuCor and 65% to the developer.)
Catapang denied knowledge about the joint agreement between Bantag and the ATOM, according to Marisol Abdurahman’s “24 Oras” report on Thursday.
He said he will order an investigation on the matter.
“Blind nga ako talaga dyan sa agreement na yan or joint venture so papupuntahan ko muna sa Nueva Ecija kung talagang totoo yung construction firm na ‘yan. Kung talaga bang nagkaroon ng joint agreement between BuCor and ATOM,” Catapang said.
The BuCor OIC said the agreement must be discussed with the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“Yung mga ganyan ang alam ko dyan department level yan eh. Wala kasi we are under DOJ, wala kaming autonomy dyan,” Catapang said.
“Ang pinagtataka ko kung may kontrata yan bakit hindi tinapos yung project, nakatiwangwang na ganyan,” he added.
However, Bantag said Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla had told him that President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. did not want the project.
Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra, Remulla's predecessor in the Department of Justice, on Wednesday said he has no knowledge of the excavation site inside the NBP.
For Bantag, the project did not need the approval of Guevarra, only the BuCor chief.
“Hindi na 'yan kailangan aprubahan ni Guevarra noon dahil may authority ang [BuCor Director General], ganun ang authority ng DG [Gueverra’s approval was no longer needed because the DG already has the authority],” he said.
Catapang said he will also order an investigation on the ranch and animals discovered inside NBP.
He said a personnel of BuCor admitted that he is the owner of the animals.
“Syempre may caretaker ‘yan, PDL o inmate nag-aalaga niyan tapos baka mamaya kami rin ang gumagastos sa pagkain nila. Parang nalulugi naman ang BuCor at personal na mga hayop nila kami nagaasikaso,” Catapang said.
Catapang said BuCor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag admitted that he was the owner of the horses inside the jail facility.
“Sabi inaangkin daw ni Chaclag so sabi ko kung ano paimbestigahan na lang kung siya talaga ang umaako, siya may ari," he said.
"I’m relieving him from his duties. Kasi I will be investigating kung paano nangyari yan eh so that he will not influence the investigation temporarily relieved siya from his duties,” he added.
Meanwhile, Bantag said the horses that were discovered inside NBP were an alternative to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) that jail personnel could use to pursue escaping inmates.
“Basta yung kabayong yun, trinaining namin yung mga tauhan namin para gamitin yung horseback riding patrol kapag mayroon tumatakas panghabol sa kanila unlike sa ATV na mahal,” he said.
Regarding the snakes found inside the national penitentiary, Bantag said they were from his former personnel and now are being used to eradicate rats inside the jail facility.
“Ang daming daga, ang lalaki. Nilagay namin sa silong para kainin niya yung mga daga, pest control kumbaga [There are so many big rats. We put the snakes in the basement so they would eat the rats, like pest control],” he said.
Bantag also expressed doubt on the confiscation of contrabands, including the 7,500 cans of beer, inside the NBP under the new leadership under Catapang.
He called Catapang a “magician” for having such accomplishments considering he was appointed BuCor OIC just recently.
“Pagdating niya doon meron kaagad siyang accomplishment na. So sino pa ang magpapasok doon kundi sila [When he went there he already had an accomplishment. So who would bring those contrabands but them],” he said.
GMA News Online has sought the comment from BuCor’s public information office. It has yet to give a statement as of writing.
Murder complaints have been filed against Bantag, BuCor Senior Superintendent Ricardo Zulueta, and others over the October 3 killing of broadcaster Percy Lapid and an alleged middleman in the slay plot, New Bilibid Prison inmate Cristito Villamor Palaña or Jun Villamor.
Bantag has denied involvement in the killings. —With a report from Richa Noriega/KBK, GMA Integrated News