We had a day to kill in Puerto Princesa, (the capital of Palawan) before heading to Port Barton, so decided to rent a motorbike and visit the nearby prison. As you do…
I didn’t think you could generally visit prisons (unless you know an inmate) so this sounded like an interesting opportunity to get a glimpse of prison life in the Philippines, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how weird it would be.
For starters, we arrived at the main gate expecting a big bureaucratic process to be allowed access, but no, we just signed a hand-written registration book and we left alone to proceed into the prison at our own will. We headed down the bumpy main path until we reached a sign saying ‘Minimum Security Compound’. There were no guards or anyone to ask so we took a right and headed to a shed-like structure.
After parking the bike outside a pretty basic looking building we were approached by a man who spoke good English (like almost everyone in the Philippines). We weren’t sure if he was a prisoner or a guard but he asked if we would like to see the prison so we said yes. He led us up some stairs to the watchtower over the Minimum Security Compound where we could see into the recreation yard (where a tennis tournament was taking place) and some of the surrounding buildings. It looked very basic (bamboo buildings thatched roofs) and and reminded me of images of Japanese-run prisoner of war camps in WWII.
As we chatted it turned out he was in fact an inmate who was serving seven years for drug dealing. There didn’t seem to be any guards around, and as more and more prisons were alerted to our presence and began looking up at us, we started to feel a bit uneasy. The prisoner tried to sell us a carton of cigarettes which he suggested we could then give to the inmates. We declined and made a quick exit.
As we bumped along the roads we passed several prisoners working in the fields, planting rice, weeding and ploughing. They were all wearing t-shirts which either said ‘Minimum’, ‘Medium’ or ‘Maximum’ depending on the severity of their crime. As there was no fence around the property I couldn’t understand why these inmates didn’t just escape, especially as the surroundings were all countryside where you could lay low.
After cruising through picturesque countryside we arrived at the main section of the prison. This was also where all the tourist buses were (as you could visit the prison on a tour) and there was big gift shop full of handiworks the prisoners had made (the tills were manned by inmates as well). They also tried to sell Jack one of the ‘Minimum’ t-shirts for P500 (GBP 7.50). Still no sign of any guards.
We chatted to a inmate with a ‘Medium’ t-shirt on who was in for armed robbery and he explained that he didn’t live in a barracks but in his own house with his family on site. We asked if people regularly escape and he said no, as life in here was better than outside. The government gives them a small daily allowance (P30/GBP 0.45) and they were allowed to work in the prison farms to produce food which they can then sell. He said it was a better quality of life than in the real world.
We wandered around some more and passed houses and shops and it almost felt like we could have been in a Filipino village. There was another barrack (with open gates) where some prisoners called to us but we weren’t sure if they were just saying “hello” or inviting us in!
A very bizarre day trip.