The Filipino Prison That Uses Freedom, Not Bars

The Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Puerto Princesa is known as the "prison without walls," because even violent convicts here can work and live on this vast land with relative autonomy.

Jofelle Tesorio and Ariel Carlos

PUERTO PRINCESA — Rather than receiving the death penalty, some convicted murderers and rapists in the Philippines are instead sent to the so-called "prison without walls." At Asia's only such jail, 3,000 inmates live and work on 74,000 acres in one of the country's most beautiful regions.

Like many others, Carlo Mercedez works behind a computer in a simple office for eight hours a day — Monday to Friday. "Then I get weekends off to spend time with my family," he says.

But Mercedez isn't an ordinary citizen. He's one of the prisoners here at Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, serving 30 years for rape. He begins his office day early, coming and going freely but expected to be present for multiple prisoner head counts during the day.

"At 6 in the morning we have head count, then we go back to prepare to go to the office at 8 a.m., he says. "We go home at noon to have lunch, then go back at the office at 1 p.m. At 4 p.m., there is another head counting. Then we can go home."

He has been at this unique prison for seven years. "I don't know when I will be released, but I already served my minimum sentence since 2011," he says.

Because of that, he is allowed to live in a halfway house with his wife and three young children, who attend school inside the open-air prison's facility.

Newer inmates serving time for murder, rape and dealing drugs are also free to work inside the prison grounds during the day, but they are kept locked up at night.

Penal Superintendent Richard Schwarzkopf Jr. is clearly proud of the fact that the facility is the only one of its kind in Asia. "We can talk about the uniqueness of Iwahig as a prison without bars maybe because of its vast location, natural environment and way of treating inmates," he says. "Some of our existing programs being undertaken can be adapted to other prison facilities."

On the vast grounds, there are all kinds of agricultural activities: rice farming, coconut plantations, chicken farming, a fish pond and vegetable farms. Based on their skills, inmates are given jobs ranging from farming to office work.

And the place has also become somewhat of a tourist attraction. Aldrin, who is serving 20 years for a crime he doesn't want to talk about, makes a living from selling handicrafts to tourists. "Those who want to see Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm and our historical buildings, please visit us," he says. "You can help us inmates by visiting this facility and buying souvenir items.”

Tourists visiting Iwahig — amy abanes via Instagram

Among his customers today is Jobert James from Manila. "When you hear the word "prison," normally you think of inmates being behind walls," James says. "So I thought Iwahig would be dangerous because inmates are outside. I was afraid that they might harm us because they're convicts. But my impression has changed. It's really safe here."

Making prisoners want to stay

During the Spanish colonial period, dissidents were exiled to this area, and it continued to be a penal colony under American rule. The prison is surrounded by thick mangrove forest, a mountain range and a highway, and these barriers are all that separate the prisoners from the outside world.

It's Xerxes Sebido's job as a prison guard to keep track of the inmates, but he says that four or five escape each year. "It's not easy to guard so many inmates, but the number of guards has been increased," Sebido says. "We have also implemented new security measures. And we are strengthening our rehabilitation and reformation programs. This helps the inmates to have a clear outlook on life and not think of escaping anymore."

Xerxes and the other guards also live on site, are given land here to build their houses so their families can live with them. "This is also one strategy of the Bureau of Corrections to keep the employees nearby when something happens like when a prisoner escapes."

Schwarzkopf says that, typically, those who escape are easily caught. He would prefer no one to escape, but instead of building walls, the strategy is to make prisoners want to stay.

"We have many reformation programs being implemented and enhanced such as the basic education and technical-vocational education for the inmates," he says.

Back at the office, inmate Carlo Mercedez is encoding a file on his computer. Though he feels lucky that he can still live with his family, he longs for life on the outside.

"It is not as happy as when you are a free man in society," he says.

Schwarzkopf says that only 10% of Iwahig's prisoners become repeat offenders after their release, a figure lower than the national average. The jail has also had no recent history of riots or mass breakouts.

Most other jails in the Philippines have brutal conditions, with inmates packed beyond capacity in dingy, airless cells and having to take turns sleeping.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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