Philippine Island Times Adventures of an American expat in the Philippines

September 12, 2008

In the Penal Colony

Filed under: Palawan — Donald @ 6:49 pm

Iwahig Penal Colony

My tricycle driver seemed not to have been inside the Iwahig Penal Colony before; not a bad thing, but temporarily inconvenient. After I signed us in he followed the pitted and rocky road past rice paddies and outbuildings, past inmates offering fruit–some with a razor glance that made it difficult to stop and difficult just to pass by–until finally we came to the central square near the barracks. We had not seen anyone clearly “in charge” since leaving the main gate and neither of us had any idea who we should approach. A very old man with a positively beaming toothless smile noticed our confusion and directed us to the nearby home of the colony Supervisor. I greeted him with my own best smile and the customary “Good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon. What is your business here?” No smile, and very, very serious.

“I am a psychologist from the United States and I have read about Iwahig. I would like to talk with someone about it.”

The Supervisor invited me up to the second floor veranda of his simple but pleasant wooden home and for the next two hours we talked about the colony. About 3000 prisoners and a couple of hundred staff live there. Though many of the inmates have been found guilty of murder and other serious offenses and they serve an average of about fifteen years, because of good behavior at other institutions–and to relieve the serious overcrowding there–all have been deemed suited to minimum or medium security and reassigned to Iwahig. Only a minority are locked in. The remainder live in an open agricultural village that appears fairly normal except for the scarcity of stores and women and children. There are even a few of those around, not only because staff live at Iwahig, but because after serving one fifth of their sentence with good behavior, prisoners can apply to have their families live with them, and a couple of dozen do so.

“We teach them how to work in the fields, to plant, to harvest, to use machinery. We restore their self-confidence.” The colony is not self-sufficient, as some reports suggest, but by working several hundred hectares of rice and corn and vegetables, it meets most of its own needs and generates income. By all accounts, prisoners are treated with decency and respect. Few attempt escape into the malarial jungle, and some do not want to leave after their sentences are complete.

I asked the rate of recidivism. “We call those balikbayans.” That gave me my first hard laugh of the afternoon. It is a term one often hears, usually referring to Filipinos who are returning home after having gone in search of a better life abroad. The Supervisor, who had been at Iwahig for more than 30 years, estimated that of 1000 prisoners who are released, perhaps 10 commit further offenses and are sent back.

Most Filipinos regard the United States with open admiration. Even a security guard at the Manila airport once said to me “USA number one!” as he searched my luggage. The average American has about thirteen times the purchasing power of the average Filipino, even after adjusting for the much higher American prices. Yet incarceration rates in the United States are five times higher—the highest in the world, in fact—and criminal recidivism is over 50%.

My day at Iwahig did not make me homesick.

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