March 30, 2023

Jacuzzis, strip bars and music studios: the unusual reality of prisons in the Philippines

When the Philippines’ largest prison was last inspected, there were surprising discoveries. Thousands of counterfeit items were found in the prison New Bilibid, including weapons, alcohol, drugs and gambling. Horses, game birds and snakes were also found inside the prison.

The inspection was carried out after the killing of a journalist on the orders of the “chief of the prison”, Gerald Bandang. The inmate has denied any involvement and the case has yet to go to court, but the seriousness of the charges has called into question how the country’s prisons are run.

In the Philippines, prisons are notorious for corruption, according to the The guardian. In February, four Japanese men were arrested in connection with various schemes and thefts in Japan from an immigration detention center in the Philippines.

Recluse released an album that sold 15,000 copies

Investigations into prisons revealed many perks, for example luxury villas and jacuzzis, televisions, strip clubs, sex toys and drugs were found available to some inmates. It turned out that a prisoner had a music studio inside his “villa” in New Bilibid prison, where he recorded some songs and even released an album that sold 15,000 copies.

New Bilibid is one of the largest prisons in the world, holding about 29,000 inmates even though it has a capacity of only 6,000, said Raymund Narag, a professor of criminology at Southern Illinois University in the US.

“That’s where all the problems in Philippine prisons come from. A good cell for, say, 10 people, there will be 100 prisoners and only one jailer.”

Prisoners take on multiple roles

To avoid disorder, prison guards and prisoners develop their own structures to manage daily life. There is a hierarchy of prisoners throughout the prison, with prisoners taking on a variety of roles. Basic functions – even basic security – are outsourced to prisoners.

“They are the ones who count the prisoners, they are the ones who keep the cell clean”, says Narag, who spent more than six years in prison before a court found he had been wrongly accused. Since then, he has become an expert in criminology and prisons.

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According to the professor, prisoners can also receive resources from outside, such as medicine, food or clothes and money (about 38 euros per visitor), which means that there are business schemes throughout the prison.

For most prisoners, the conditions are miserable. In 2019, a doctor at New Bilibid Hospital said about 5,200 prisoners die annually due to overcrowding, disease and violence.

“Here there is ill-treatment, torture, sometimes even [contra] children from the police

Conditions in the cells, where people are kept after detention, are alarming, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Carlos Conde “here there is ill-treatment, torture, sometimes even [contra] children from the police. There are few facilities that meet international standards,” he added.

The Philippines’ Justice Secretary, Jesus Crispin Remulla, acknowledged that the country’s prison sector faces many challenges and promised changes, namely reducing bail for the poorest inmates, as well as increasing the prosecution period for prosecutors.

Since July 2022, when Bongbong Marcos became President of the Philippines, more than 4,000 prisoners have been released, some for good behavior, to relieve pressure on the prison system.

The Philippine government, according to Raymund Narag, needs to look for alternatives to prison and should build smaller regional prisons, with inmates organized according to level of violation rather than according to gang involvement as is the case now – an arrangement that encourages offenders from minor offenses to mix with more dangerous criminals.

“The structural root of the problem never [foi resolvida]”

The professor concluded that changes must address the dynamics and hierarchies within prisons. Efforts previously focused only on changes in prison leadership: “the structural root of the problem never [foi resolvida]”.

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