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Home sweet jail

Twenty-eight inmates locked in a cell with no air-conditioning. “That’s how we lived before the new warden came.” Explained the Head of Peace and Order Comity, a prisoner in the Puerto Princesa City Jail. “We never got out. We never saw the sun. We took a shower with a fire hose.”

Since the new warden, Amado Concepcion, took over, just two years ago, the inmates have been reaping the benefits of his wide-sweeping reforms. In addition to open doors, the jail featured: agriculture, high school and literacy classes, sports teams, and trade school. Conjugal visits were permitted, and family, lawyers, doctors, and religious could visit any time. Warden Concepcion’s innovative approach fit perfectly with the overall program Mayor Edward Hagedorn had set for the city of Puerto Princesa, which was constantly being heralded as one of the most progressive cities in the world.

It was no wonder the Puerto Princesa Jail had won an award as a model jail, in the Philippines.

“Now, we are free to go anywhere on the grounds, all day.” Explained The Head of Peace and Order Comity.

The grounds, which many referred to as a campus, included acres of farm land, where the prisoners were growing there own food.

Pastor Alberto, who has been running an outreach mission at the jail for some years, led me down a muddy path through the vegetable fields. “This is all part of the jail.” He explained. By all accounts, the prisoners were unhealthy and malnourished before. “One of my parishioners donated this farm land. Both Mayor Hagedorn and Warden Amado Concepcion agreed to allow the prisoners to grow food here.” Things improved dramatically after that.

We entered the prison through the back door so I could get a sense of just how expansive the farm was. An unarmed guard, who was himself a prisoner, checked us in, and we entered the main courtyard. A reception committee composed of the Chief of Staff, Head of Peace and Order Committee, and the Press Secretary, all of whom were inmates, greeted me. They led me onto a stage and announced the arrival of the visiting journalist from America. The inmates, both male and female, standing at attention sang a song of welcome.

From where I stood on the dais I could see only one armed guard in the prison proper and one in a watchtower, overlooking the fields.

The Chief of Staff explained that the prison was run entirely by the inmates. “If the Warden sees you have talent, he doesn’t let it go to waste. He puts you to work.” The Chief was a college graduate who had spent several years in America and had excellent English. As a result, he helped the Warden, acting as a kind of secretary, keeping records, dealing with the many visitors, and keeping track of the Warden’s schedule. “He put cable in my room so I could watch CNN. Part of my job is to watch the news everyday and report back to him what the world is saying about the Philippines and about Puerto Princesa.”

According to inmates, the normal ration of food which a Philippine prisoner could look forward to was about 40 Pesos per day. “That is about enough for one bowl of rice with something on it.” Explained the Press Secretary, a former prominent journalist from Manila who was in jail for liable. Prisoners are expected to receive support from their families, rather than from the tax payers. “Many of them are from far away. So, they don’t have family here to help them. And even if they do, most of them are very poor and the family can’t give them much, if anything.”

The Chief of Staff, who tracked all of the statistical data said that 80% of the prisoners never had visitors.

The Press Secretary told me. “I have no family no visitors, no one to help me. We need food, soap, coffee, sugar, shampoo, toothpaste…”
Pastor Alberto asks all visitors to the jail to bring some food and personal hygiene items for the prisoners.

All of the inmates agreed that the farm was a huge improvement on their diet and overall health. The inmates also made money by making souvenir handcrafts and selling them to tourists. One inmate had made an elaborate sculpture of a dragon, which he tried to sell me, but it was much too big to fit in my suitcase. Another had made two, life-like lobsters.

“These are made from discarded two-liter plastic bottles, and then painted.” Explained Pastor Alberto.

In the end, I felt so guilty, I bought the lobsters from one group of inmates, turned around, and gave them to another group, so they could sell them again.

“The Warden allowed the men to create these small gardens and lagoons, just for beauty.” Explained the Pastor, pointing out the fish ponds in the main yard.

“Here is where the men raise bees for honey.” Explained Alberto, showing me the large, buzzing boxes. “They sell the honey to supplement their food.”

The prisoners cooked for themselves in the cells. The smell of smoke and food was strong.

We toured classrooms where men were learning radio repair and plumbing.

The Chief of Staff explained. “We have a lot who can’t read, not many high school graduates and very few college grads. Nearly all of them come from poor families.

“The university students come here as volunteer teachers.” Explained Pastor Alberto.  

The boxing team was more than slightly in need of equipment. They had no gloves and no headgear, only a punching bag made from a rice sack. “They train every day. On March 23, they are holding a boxing tournament.”

I was invited to fight, but there was no opponent big enough. I argued that if they matched me with a guy who had killed three people maybe it balanced out.

Behind the boxing area, the female prisoners had their own cell.
“Some pregnant women gave birth here.” Explained Peace and Order. “The kids lived in the jail and went outside for school.”

“In some families, the man and the woman are both in jail. The kids come here after school.” Said the Chief of Staff. “People lose their mind when they go to jail because they are poor but going to jail makes them poorer.” At least here they can see there families and they can make some attempt at feeding themselves without becoming a burden to the family.

“Our life only improved when the warden came, that is why we hope they don’t take him away.” Said the Chief of Staff.

In theory, the jail is a place for people awaiting trial and conviction, after which, they will be sentenced to a term in prison.

“All of the time spent in jail counts towards their sentence.” Explained the Chief of Staff.

The problem, however, which was through no fault of the Mayor or the Warden, was that the Philippine justice system is notoriously slow. Some prisoners said that they had been waiting four years, and still hadn’t had their trial. Currently there was an inmate who had been waiting 10 years for his trial. Time spent in jail counts towards a sentence. But, what if at the end of 10 years he is sentenced to two years in prison? Who will repay him for the lost years?

The jail itself was not the problem. It was obvious that the Warden and those responsible were sympathetic to the prisoner’s plight and had made every effort to make their time in jail easier. I just assumed that under such humane circumstances there would be no violence among inmates.

“They are not seminarians.” The Chief of Staff reminded me. “Forty-eight of the prisoners are here for violent assault or murder.”
“We have our share of fights. We even had some stabbings.” Said the Head of the Peace and Order Committee, one of the few US citizens in the jail. “But when that happens, we take care of it ourselves.”

Pastor Alberto regularly brought doctors and dentists to help the prisoners. He also headed a program, he called “Jamming in the Jail,” where the inmates formed a band, and played music.

“I tell the men to think of this as a resort, not a prison.” Said Pastor Alberto. “I tell them you are taking a nice vacation for a while, and you don’t have to worry about working.”

We were sitting in a gazebo, made of coconut lumber, up on the prison roof. A cool breeze blew across the garden. The Muslim prisoners were preparing for noon prayers in an immaculate hut, complete with carpet. In a cage on the corner was an injured eagle, which the men were nursing back to health. When it was well, they would set it free. The men, of course, would still be here.

“Home sweet jail.” Said the Chief of Staff. “If I had to go to jail again I’d prefer to do it here.” He concluded.

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available on Contact him see his website

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