Travel Therapy: Wise Words from Filippino Prisoners

I am absolutely in love with the Philippines. From the pristine beaches, to the lovely people and the many experiences available, it is certainly a number 1 to go visit- just don’t expect anything to be on time and you’ll be fine! 

I found out about an open prison in Palawan- an island in Philippines, where people could go visit and meet some of the prisoners. I jumped at this opportunity, as having completed my dissertation on Women In Prisons and previously worked for Fine Cell Work – a charity helping to rehabilitate prisoners through the art of needlework, I knew I had to see what prisoners in the Philippines were all about. 

The idea about Iwahig Prison is that the prisoners are there to work, whether it be on the rice fields, farming, building new developments or making furniture. They are allowed to roam free around the huge grounds but have to work for the majority of the day. All of these prisoners have been hand picked from Manila prison and had to go through rigorous testing in order to make it. Such as fitness, behaviour, mental health records from 3 professionals etc. 

Upon entering the prison grounds I was struck by how beautiful it was, lushus green rice fields, beautiful birds flying around and well made buildings. I saw inmates working away and all would smile as we drove by in our tuk tuk. I was almost pinching myself that I was technically in jail right then! 

Dropped off at the main entrance I heard backstreet boys coming from inside, as I walked into the room I saw a group of men all dancing a routine to I Want It That Way…. Quite an interesting sight considering these men looked pretty hard and with most of their bodies covered in tattoos! I wasn’t quite sure if I felt that these men were like performing monkeys or whether this was a creative way to raising money for their needs.  

Afterwards, dancer Jason (presumably he gave himself a Western name!) came over to me to show me the various things on sale that prisoners had made, all of which were extremely impressive. He told me that a percentage of the money made would go to the prisoners who desperately needed money to give to their families to visit, as they were often at least a flight away back in the capital Manila. The crimes within the prison ranged from high- life sentence prisoners, medium- 20 years or less and low- 5 years or less. They all lived separately depending on their category but would all work together during the day. He said this was great as gave them all a chance to integrate and learn to work together. 

He told me his dancing group was the best job to have! Everyday he gets to meet new people, so he never gets bored, and he very much enjoys seeing people smiling at his performance as it makes him feel like he is doing good for others! The only snag- they have to dance everyday from 6am-9pm whenever a new tourist enters, and as he is now a 40yr old man his back isn’t quite holding up, but he won’t let his place go! 

I chatted to Jason for a couple of hours, his story was indeed a harrowing one. Aged 14 living with his family in Manila, they got robbed by armed men, he and his father were shot after trying to defend their home. He awoke in hospital to find out his mother and sister were raped and murdered and his father never survived. A year later he took his revenge. He is now in prison for life, but he said that there was no life after what happened to his family…. He had the staple prison badge- 2 tear drop tattoos (for x2 murders) but had a very warm face- quite contrasting aspects! Jason asked lots of questions about me and then proceeded to give me some life advice – maybe he could sense I was in need of some!?

He told me the key in life is to forgive, not only others but yourself. To wake up everyday thankful that you’re alive and here, he looked at me and said I bet you don’t do that as it wouldn’t occur to you that you wouldn’t be alive- thinking about, he’s quite spot on! He said don’t be bitter. Fight what you can but know when to let go. My favourite- if a boy ever breaks your heart don’t let them see you cry! And his last advice: always have a smile, keeps you positive even if you don’t feel it! At that moment there I knew I had to soak up all his words because if a man jailed for life after seeing his family raped and murdered can be like this, then everyday I must make sure to wake up reminding myself to do the same… 

As I said goodbye he whispered to me to add him on FB, and then grinned saying he had an illegal phone in here and had used a fake name for his profile! Funny how social media can make even the hardest of men do silly things!!!

Il finish with a Video of the dancing Inmates! 

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