Twice the size of Paris, the open-air Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm offers a unique approach to reforming criminals.
Manila, The Philippines – Rogelio Reyes has learned to be a patient man. The 58-year-old economist is one of the longest-serving inmates in Manila City Jail. He has spent more than 14 years there but has never been convicted of a crime.
I met Reyes inside the jail in October. Even in a crowd of more than 6,000 inmates, he’s hard to miss. He’s usually marching through Dorm 7, organising the prisoners, announcing the day’s activities, and shouting for his deputy, ‘Mamu’.
With his round belly and booming laugh, Reyes is popular among the inmates. In fact, they elected him to be their ‘mayor’. All 14 dorms in the jail have mayors, who appoint their own deputies and ‘marshals’ to guard the dorms.
“We have a system where we share the governance,” said Jayrex Bustinera, the jail’s chief records officer. “We delegate some of the authority to the inmate leaders where inmates can police co-inmates … They help us institute peace and order.”
Mayors like Reyes do more than just keep the peace. They prevent the jail from being overrun. Prisons in the Philippines are the most congested in the world. Manila City Jail, for example, is operating almost 600 percent over capacity.
“Our ideal capacity should be around 1,100 inmates. But the actual jail population is up to 6,300 inmates,” said Bustinera.
Conditions are so cramped that inmates sleep side-by-side on every inch of floor space. The unlucky ones sleep sitting up. Illnesses like tuberculosis and skin diseases are rampant. After spending two weeks inside the prison, every member of our crew fell ill. In such extreme conditions, it doesn’t take much for tempers to boil over.
“We should be scared, because we can be outnumbered anytime,” Bustinera admitted.
Our ideal capacity should be around 1,100 inmates. But the actual jail population is up to 6,300 inmates ... We should be scared, because we can be outnumbered anytime.
International guidelines recommend one guard for every seven inmates, but here the ratio is one to about 200.
It’s the job of mayors like Reyes to keep a lid on this potentially volatile situation. He advocates for inmates with the prison authorities and ensures that all the new arrivals respect the rules.
“If you are angry, you will not survive,” he said. “If your heart is full of anger, most probably you will be in the stockroom … because you will quarrel with the many inmates. Here you have to control yourself.”
Stuck behind bars
Reyes has been in jail since 2004, when he was arrested and charged with falsifying public documents and embezzling money from Manila City Council. He has been fighting the charges ever since. But he’s stuck behind bars because he can’t afford bail.
“What shall we do? We are very helpless here in the jail … The only thing we can do is to pray, pray and pray,” he said.
Reyes has been acquitted in more than 20 cases, but he still has over 50 pending. At the pace the court is working, he could die in jail before they process all the cases. He told me that after his 200th hearing was scheduled a few years ago, he simply stopped counting.
At Manila City Jail, 90 percent of inmates are still on trial and have not been convicted of any crime.
Most of them were rounded up as part of President Rodrigo Duterte‘s ‘war on drugs’. Almost 160,000 people have been arrested in the last two years on drugs charges.
“Before, the number of inmates that we had there in Dorm 7 was only 170. Now we are nearing 700,” said Reyes.
As the country’s over-stretched courts trudge through the enormous backlog of cases, inmates often spend years in jail separated from their families.
“For a person to be able to survive here in jail, the support of the family should be there,” said Reyes. “Most of those people who committed suicide … one of the reasons is that the family had not been visiting them. And it will be very, very hard for a person if he will not have a visitor here.”
Even after more than 14 years behind bars, Reyes’ family still visit him often. He had five young children when he was arrested. Now they have children of their own. For their sake, he hopes he will be released soon.
“I still want to have a purposeful life, that my existence has a purpose,” he said. “A man has to be free and I must be free too. I hope so.”