Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm in The Philippines
Yes there is a giant “Welcome to Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm” sign along the ordinary bland road coming into Puerto Princesa. I hopped out of the mini van from Brooke’s point at about midday. The sky was overcast and I wondered if I was about to get very wet visiting of all places a prison camp in the Philippines.
I didn’t know quite what to expect as I was met by a few locals trying to get me to buy crocodile key chains. Then a stern looking man in a uniform who handed me an ID tag. I looked up at the long stretch of road ahead, nothing but green pasture on either side.
“Is it far?”
The guard looked at me in a board manner, and smirked, “3 kilometers.” He paused to look at the sky, “It’s going to rain.”
What is Iwahig Prison in The Philippines?
I shrugged off his comment and put it down to typical guard like behavior and began my walk. All I knew was that this was the place
where prisoners could live with their families freely. They were allowed walk around, and tend to farms. There were meant to be no bars involved, no weapons, no chains. Free prisoners from murderers, to rapists, to thieves. They were all here, roaming around freely. It was something I had to see to believe.
Walking to Iwahig Prison colony on Palawan:
The road was long and all round I were palm trees, the odd out house and an occasional roaming person. I wondered if this was it. Whether these grass walking nomads were the prisoners and this was the camp. A let down.
Rain began to splatter down and I grumbled to my self as a lone motorbike sped past. Two minutes later and I heard a local min van coming up the road behind me. I did what any damp traveler would do and stuck my thumb out.
It worked, and I was soon in the back of mini van for the next 5 minutes. In the back there were two children, in the front a young woman and much older man driving. I didn’t dare ask if they were visiting a relative. Instead I just wondered some more about the place. Still no sign of guard.
Arriving at Iwahig Prison:
We arrived at what can only be described as a colonial style manor. White washed buildings around a large square of grass. Men in brown shirts with “Inmate” printed into the back stood in clusters under the eves sheltering from the rain. Not sure of where to go I walked towards the largest building across from me.
I turned to see a smiling man in clean everyday clothes beaming down at me from a veranda. I waved up at him, and took advantage of the shelter.
The man spoke quite broken English. But still he managed to tell me of the prisons history, and what was going on now. Prisoners were selected at random to stay at Iwahig with their families. Here they were given a supplement of 30 pesos ($0.50) a day to live on by the government. Most certainly not enough to feed a family, so they were allowed to work on the prison farms. Here they could either make food for themselves to eat, or to sell at a profit to buy food. If they didn’t, then quite simply they didn’t eat.
I asked the question most were sure to wonder. “Do they not try to escape?”
The man shook his head. “No. No one leaves.”
“Why would they? Here they have food, accommodation and their family. Outside, maybe they go steal again and end up in worse prison.”
It was a logic I didn’t think could work. But then you take the poverty factor in the Philippines into account. It makes sense. The man continued to tell me about the souvenir store, the farm area and about prisoner rankings.
“You rank the prisoners?” I asked as he pulled a little army stripped plastic medal from out of his shirt.
“I am the mayor of Iwahig,” he said proudly. “I am the highest ranked here.”
I looked at him and realized that he was indeed an inmate. And again I wanted to ask what he had done? But, one doesn’t feel comfortable asking such a thing after having such a conversation.
The rain had stopped so I thanked the Mayor for his time and walked across the main grassy area. Wondering if I was breaking any
rules by doing so. While at the same time questioning the idea that there were no guards here. Meaning the prisoners were in charge.
They even have a tourist souvenir shop at the penal colony:
I walked into the souvenir store and was taken back by the contents inside. Here, in a prison camp, were the very best and
cheapest souvenirs in the Philippines. Key chains, hand carved boats, masks, rain makers, jewelery, you name it they had it. And best of all it was run by … yes only prisoners. Still not a guard in sight.
Running into two prisoners:
Two prisoners in light brown t-shirts approached me with smiles, one genuine, and one that sent alarm bells ringing in my gut. The man had a heavily creased face, almost looking as if there was dirt hanging in the shadows of his face.
I knew the look, I’d seen it in plenty of streets, bus terminals, borders and other places. But here, I was in his turf under the most bizarre of circumstances.
I let the men show me around, and I bought a few exceptionally cheap trinkets. They were happy. But happier still when a mini van of Chinese tourists showed up. Both men walked off towards two ladies as they entered. Just as pleasant as they were to me, and with the same smiles. I sat back and bought a sprite. Another prisoner or two came up to me to say hello.
“Shhh,” my head snapped around to see the shadowy prisoner at my side. “You want to buy me shirt?”
I looked at him, and placed my hands in my pockets to prevent anything being removed. “Why?”
“Prisoner inmate t-shirt,” he grinned. “Don’t tell the others?”
I looked at the stained t-shirt he was wearing, wondering quite when it was last washed. “I’m alright for t-shirts thanks.”
He nodded and looked me up and down. I stared back to be sure he got the picture. His smile deepened and he turned away. He was now turning his attention to one of the Korean women who’d chosen to buy a mask from the other man.
“Pretty huh?” he whispered.
“I bet you get a lot of that.”
I thought how to answer. And gave the man what he wanted. “Every night buddy, every night.”
He grunted and walked off. But not before his smile dropped a bit.
Going deeper into the prison at Iwahig:
I left the souvenir building and turned the corner to face the largest building in the compound as the Chinese tourist van drove off. The conversation stuck with me and the realization that this was their land, with no guard hammered the back of my mind.
“If they wanted to, there no matter what the Mayor said, they could make you disappear.”
I walked down to the back of the building feeling a lot more pensive. A few inmates passed by. Some nodded a greeting. Others whispered in low voices about buying one of those t-shirts. I stopped to take a photo of the building when one man hissed at me. I looked over at the tall gangling individual as he lurked by one of the doorway’s surrounding it. He raised his eyebrows in that Filipino way and pointed up to the second floor.
I cringed at what the heck the guy might have been trying to communicate. But there was no way I was following him alone into the dark recesses of the old building.
“Heyyy sir …”
I looked around and watched as a slightly squat man in his twenty’s sauntered towards me. Mini skirt, bright red lipstick and boobs included. “Anything for you?”
I shook my head most sternly, “Just photographing … the building.”
I’ve had a number of inquiries from friends and relatives asking about how to get in touch with inmates at the Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm in Palawan, The Philippines. The best I can suggest is you contact:
Bureau of Corrections
NBP Reservation, Muntinlupa City
Telephone: +632 850-50-02
Telephone: +632 807-23-68
Website : bucor.gov.ph
Getting up close up and personal with an inmate … the real boss
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