Inside Philippines Gang-Run, Overcrowded Prisons

While most Western prisons operate under strict surveillance, the Filipino penitentiary system functions through an unusual combination of prisoner self-management and gang oversight.

Overcrowded cell.
Overcrowded cell.
Marianne Dardard

MANILA â€" "I joined the gang so I could have my own room, after a year of scrubbing the toilets."

Lifting his convict’s T-shirt, 48-year-old Jimmy* shows off the emblem of his gang, "Sigue-sigue Sputnik," tattooed on his back: it’s a flamboyant spaceship, named after some British cyberpunk band. As a reward for joining the gang, Jimmy now has his very own "kubol" (or “shelter” in Tagalog, the Philippine archipelago's main language) next to the dorm he used to share with 800 other prisoners, in the Quezon City Jail in a northern suburb of Manila.

With more than 3,500 convicts, four times more than capacity allows, this is one of the most overpopulated prisons in the Philippines. Chief Inspector Roselyn Carta, who wears a mask on her face to protect herself from tuberculosis, is one of the rare women in this male world. She struggles to make her way through the crowd of inmates gathered outside, all seeking a bit of fresh air.

"In the evening, some of them sleep on the basketball court," she says.

Some of the prisoners have less than two square meters to themselves, of a requisite 4.7 square meters.

"Prison overcrowding is a matter of humanitarian urgency in the Philippines," says Vincent Ballon. He's in charge of this thorny issue in the Philippine branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); visiting prisoners is among the Geneva-based organization's missions. Interviews with convicts take place without witnesses and are confidential.

"We demand repeated access to all prisoners," Ballon explains.

In 2014, there were about 120,000 convicts among the archipelago's 100 million citizens. In 2015, the figure increased to 140,000, or 140 for every 100,000 inhabitants, far behind the U.S., which has with 716 per 100,000. With an occupation rate of 316%, Philippine prisons are the most overcrowded in the whole of Asia, and the fifth most crowded in the world, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

In a move to solve the problem while facilitating prisoner rehabilitation, inmates are being encouraged to participate in the most diverse activities: morality classes taught by religious organizations, repair or painting workshops supervised by prisoners themselves, depending on their abilities, choir and even dancing classes. A video shot in 2007 in which 1,500 inmates of the Cebu maximum security prison danced to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" went viral and has been seen more than 56 million times, turning the penitentiary into a tourist attraction of the central Philippines.

Over more than a year, some 50 convicts have been released early thanks to an innovative day-credit system that rewards such rehabilitation efforts.

"In the Quezon City Jail, you earn three-and-a-half days if you study, two if you take a small job, and one if you behave yourself. You can accumulate up to eight credits per week," Carta explains.

But the policy's impact on relapses is difficult to assess. So far, "good behavior" credits have only been recorded on paper, and mistakes do happen. The ICRC has partially financed the purchase of computers to allow greater reliance on digital records, which are new.

"The worst part is that only ten to 20% of inmates are actually found guilty and sentenced for the crimes they're accused of," Ballon says.

Raymund Narag, 41, knows this all too well: For seven years, he rotted inside the Quezon City Jail for a crime he didn't commit.

"I was only 20 when I was locked up. I didn't know anything about life," he says. A few days before his graduation ceremony, Narag, then a brilliant law student, was accused of the murder of a fellow student. He was later acquitted and released in 2002.

"The killers were wearing masks. I was very popular at university. Somebody eventually gave my name, probably out of jealousy," he claims.

In spite of it all, Narag decided to put his years in jail to good use. While still a prisoner, he wrote a letter for an illiterate inmate who wanted to communicate with his family. Later, he became a scrivener, and more and more of his fellow inmates requested his help in preparing their defense statements. By the time Narag got out, he had already decided to dedicate the rest of his life to prisons, so he went to the U.S. and completed a PhD in penitentiary administration, becoming an expert in prisons around the world.

"In the West, the focus is on total incarceration: prisoners must be constantly under surveillance. Developing countries can't necessarily afford that, and opt instead for a self-management policy for the inmates, like in Latin America, or for joint management between the administration and the gangs, like in the Philippines. I think that the best model is the Scandinavian one. It's an open, community-based system, but with major resources. My country only spends 50 pesos about $1 per prisoner and per day. That's barely enough for food," Narag says.

The greatest irony of it all is that Narag now advises his own government on how to best reform the prison system. For now, this amounts to volunteer work; he’s still waiting for his wages.

"My wife is starting to complain because soon we'll have run through all our savings," he grumbles. Narag also works part-time as an assistant professor in an American university.

He often travels to New Bilibid (which means "prison" in Tagalog), in Muntinlupa, a southern district of Manila. With more than 23,000 inmates, it's the Philippines" most populated penitentiary by far, and stretches across more than 1,200 acres. Known as the home of some of the worst criminals, the penitentiary took the radical step of co-managing the facility with 12 regional gangs due to a lack of financial resources.

We're escorted through the prison by detainees paid in tips; they hold umbrellas to shield us from the sun.

"We act as the middlemen between the other convicts and the administration, which put us in charge of security," explains Mike*. He received a life sentence for murder, and is the assistant commander of the Batang City Jail gang, represented by a laughing bunny tattoo. He tacitly acknowledges that those who fail to cooperate are sometimes victims of revenge attacks.

At the Quezon City Jail, Carta has developed her own strategy to circumvent the gangs' noxious influence: "The important positions are occupied by homosexual inmates," she says.

The inmates in question don't seem to mind this form of positive discrimination. "There's a hundred of us here, and most of us aren't part of a gang. They call us the paperdolls," one says.

Sunday is family day at New Bilibid. The atmosphere inside the high security quarters is like that of a country fair. Outside of curfew times, prisoners are allowed to come and go as they please inside the compound. Trade is also allowed, with makeshift booths offering sweets and pirated DVDs. On the cafeteria's shady terrace, some inmates are chatting with their wives, who came to spend the night; they’re keeping an eye on the dormitory for vacancies.

First introduced at the beginning of the 2000s, family day in particular is said to be responsible for the drop in the prison's crime rate, which is relatively low for its population. In 2014, 22 inmates died at the prison, including two during a riot, two who were stabbed, and a doctor who was shot dead outside the facility.

With the exception of those at the prison gates, the prison’s hundred or so guards are invisible. Drug lords' cells look like star-rated short-term hotels, with air conditioning, Jacuzzis, striptease poles, and even a studio in which one former hustler recorded a mushy ballad.

"That's far from representative of most prisoners' experience," say the inmates who used to be on death row (capital punishment was outlawed in 2006).

They point above their heads to the shaky intermediate floor, cluttered with a succession of dusty mattresses. They built it themselves so they wouldn't have to sleep on the floor anymore. But construction materials have since been banned.

Plans for another, bigger prison four hours away from the capital are already underway. Eventually, 27,000 criminals will be transferred there, making it one of the world's largest penitentiaries ever.

* All prisoners' names have been changed.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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