The sun was shining the day we ended up in a Filipino prison miles away from home, on the most beautiful island in the world: Palawan. We were terrified, not knowing what to expect and what to see. Surprisingly, we found ourselves in the middle of 45 hectares of green fields and lakes where farm animals roamed freely, and prisoners worked on sustaining their new home: the prison farm. This was not a typical prison where men wore orange overalls and had to follow a military schedule, but more of a free space where prisoners actually had the complete freedom of running away whenever they wanted, but no one did. And that tells you quite a lot about the place.
The prison farm: a dignity project
Yeah we ended up in prison. But it certainly was not another episode of locked up abroad since we chose to “lock” ourselves up there voluntarily- for a day. We meant to go there to support this amazing dignity project whose sole mission is to give prisoners another chance at life. We believe that everybody makes mistakes and we all deserve a second chance as long as we acknowledge the crime we committed and show a willingness to change. And that’s what Iwahig prison farm is all about: to rehabilitate the ones who, along their way, lost everything because of a single bad decision. Not everyone is entitled to that privilege though: only those who show “good behavior” can get transferred to the prison farm.
We were welcomed by one of the prisoners who took the initiative of becoming our tour guide, taking us around the different areas of the prison. We were firstly directed to the “souvenir shop”, where all kind of art crafts were displayed for people to buy. These art crafts are hand-made by the prisoners: dream catchers, pouches, pipes, bags, bracelets, necklaces, and hats… whatever you might think of, you’ll find it there. It’s a wonderful opportunity to give back and support the “dignity project”.
However, the best part was yet to come. We were surprised to find out that a Hip-hop dance team was among the prisoners. The crew actually worked on perfecting a special choreography to perform for all visitors. They topped the level of professional dancers with their arm stands, perfectly synchronized moves, rollovers, and cross overs… the performance was mind blowing. We clapped and laughed with joy, we even tried to copy their moves and dance along.
During their break we hurried to catch their stories, to get a glimpse of their past life, hear their pain and most importantly understand how prosecuted criminals managed to regain a sense of life and hope. The stories were beyond overwhelming for us. One’s mind cannot simply process the information when a young guy who you just saw joking and dancing tells you “ yeah I am here because I killed a guy”. You simply freeze and don’t know what your reaction is supposed to be.
Jack, an orphan who was jumping from one orphanage to another, found himself, at the age of 18, on the streets of Manila, alone, with no money, no education and no job. His only way of survival was to join one of the city’s street gangs. He became a drug dealer and in no time he was caught by the police and thrown into a harsher place: Manila’s public prison. In there, life is even worse than on the streets, with the same destructive and ruthless pattern of gang life.
“I was with the Sputnik gang and we fought against the Commando gang, with only shanks in our hands! Only 50 of us died but we won!” After that, I had enough of this life and decided to change and show good behavior by being cooperative. It was hard work but I finally managed to escape this hellhole and get a ticket to the prison farm: my only way towards salvation. I thank god everyday for this blessing and I’m grateful for my new gang, the dance gang”.
A cause worth supporting
Jack is just one sad but hopeful story shared by so many others. Hearing them all left us with an uplifting feeling of appreciation, sympathy, gratefulness, and most importantly, hope. Hope in humanity, which is becoming harder to find nowadays.
What the Philippines is doing with this prison model is promising on so many levels: not only is it allowing convicts to regain a better life but it is also benefitting the entire society by lowering the crime rate and allowing the country to develop a healthier, more productive and sustainable community/society. And that is, without any doubt, a cause worth supporting.