Welcome to prison. That’s not the first thing you expect to see arriving at a prison but that is the sign that will greet you driving up to the gates of the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Palawan.
On the island of Palawan in the Philippines approximately 10-12 km outside of Puerto Princesa, the Iwahig Prison is known as the prison without walls. The name is a little misleading since there are both a medium and maximum security areas within the prison grounds.
Arriving at the prison I was stopped by a man wearing jeans and a shirt. My driver tells me he is a prisoner. You have to have permission to enter the prison and you are supposed to be visiting a prisoner or have other business to get in. My driver knows one the prisoners and tells the guy at the gate we are here to see him. The prisoner we are supposed to be visiting is a former Philippine Police Officer that is in prison for murder. After the man clears us with the prison guards at the gate we enter the grounds.
Once cleared, we begin driving down a dirt road with rice paddies on both sides. To the right 200-300 yards away I see a compound with a sign saying Minimum Security. A little further down the road I see houses and my driver tells me that they are for the prison staff and their families.
About ¾ of a mile from the front gate we come to the main prison compound. It resembles an old military compound with white administrative buildings laid out in a square, manicured patches of grass and a large area that could be used as a parade field.
The main place most visitors see is the Gift shop. On the second floor of an old wooden structure built in the 1920’s an array of goods are laid out. Prisoners run the gift shop and when I arrive I am greeted by one. I won’t give his name but he tells me he is from Baguio and has been a prisoner at the facility for 26 years. He gives me the rules which are no photos of the prisoner’s faces and I can visit the gift shop and main grounds. Not one to always abide by the rules I snapped a few shots while there.
The prisoners in Minimum Security work in the fields tending crops, man the Gift Shop and Commissary and are allowed to walk freely around the prison.
My prison salesman tells me he is in Iwahig Prison for drug related charges and says he was a student when arrested and although he only used drugs twice he was arrested and convicted of possession and sale of drugs. He tells me he thinks since he had no money to defend himself maybe the drug syndicate set him up for the drug sales charges. Now I have been around for a while and know you have to take things with a grain of truth but he does sound convincing. He also tells me everything for sale at the gift shop has been made by prisoners so they can earn a little money.
Strike one for my salesman since everything looks mass produced and as I learn a few days later, everything for sale here is also for sale at the wholesale souvenir shop in Puerto Princesa. The boats that are painstakingly hand carved and bracelets made by prisoners are in fact nothing more than tourist souvenirs that can be bought for a cheaper price in town.
The one group of prisoners you are allowed to photo are all wearing blue shirts and call themselves the dancing prisoners of Iwahig. Ask for them to perform and a group will run out onto a bare patch of the wooden floor and perform a self-choreographed routine to a boom box while a box soliciting donations sits prominently in front. After a dance I drop a hundred pesos in the box and automatically get asked if I want to join, declining, they perform another routine.
My driver tells me we should go see the Medium Security area where his friend is located. Even though I was told I cannot go there I follow my driver and we arrive at a concrete walled area that looks like it is out of an old movie.
Another group of prisoner guards are at the gate when I arrive and tell me I have to speak to the government guard sitting inside. He tells me I can go inside but no photographs. I cannot take photos of the prisoners or the prison grounds inside the gates.
I talk to a few of the prisoners but since I can’t take photos I decline going inside. One of the prisoner guards takes a little interest in me and strikes up a conversation asking me where I am from and what my background is. He tells me he is from Manila and in prison for killing two men after being attacked. He says he has a 15 year sentence at which point my driver remarks that it is better to kill someone than sell drugs because the sentence is less.
The prisoner guard tells me he has the rank of Petty Officer 2nd class which allows him to guard the gates of the Medium Security area. He also asks me to buy cigarettes for “the boys”. One thing I notice inside the compound is that there are women inside visiting the prisoners. There is no visiting area they are just inside walking around the yard. My driver points out his friend, the former police offer, but since he seems to have visitors I decide against bothering him by asking a bunch of questions. Before I leave the area my prison guard wants me to take his photo, even though it is not allowed, and walks out the gates so the government guard can’t see him posing.
My next stop is Disciplinary Cell, Building 5, otherwise known as Maximum Security.
One look at the compound and it doesn’t look much different than the medium security block. Just like the other compound I can see a couple of women inside visiting relatives. The inmates are curious to see me and are allowed to come up to the gate one at a time and talk. One gentleman about my age comes to the fence and begins talking to me. Like one of the other inmates he is from Baguio which is in the northern area of Luzon Island. He tells me he has been in the prison for a year and in six months he will go back to court. He also tells me his sister is a nurse in Dallas Texas and asks if I have ever been there. We talk about Texas and Baguio and places I should visit in the Philippines. He then says he hasn’t had a visit from anyone in his family because of the long distance and he faces a possible 20 years. I don’t ask why he is there. It isn’t important. He just needs someone to talk to for a few minutes.
Whether they are in Minimum, Medium or Maximum Security it is still a prison. It doesn’t really matter if they are walking freely in the compound, dancing for a few pesos or just talking to a stranger for a few minutes in an attempt to mentally escape.
As I passed one of the inmates walking in the compound I greeted him and said “Hi how are you doing?” He summed it up best when he replied, “Not good, I am in prison.”