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Filmmaker Kylie Grey gained extensive access to a group of children being incarcerated in the Cebu City prison in the southern Philippines.

In the following account, she describes the making of her film Hard Time, and the issues behind the child prisoners' heartbreaking stories.

I heard about the kids jailed in the Philippines when I was doing a Masters course in international development. My lecturer had just visited attorney Nina Valenzona in Cebu who used to represent the boys in Cebu City prison for free.

I couldn't put the story of these boys out of my mind. I spent six months liasing with Nina Valenzona and her daughter about the thousands of child prisoners in the Philippines and felt their plight should be highlighted internationally.

Thommy and Freckles lived on the streets, stealing, and got caught by the police
The fact that children were housed with adults for petty crimes and really needed guidance, love and a good home not a prison sentence, needed public attention.

The authorities tried to hide the fact that children were housed with adult prisoners and the Philippine government pretended for years it wasn't happening.

I found out that it was actually against Philippine law to house the boys with the adult prisoners.

Local authorities who had the money to build juvenile detention facilities were spending it on themselves.

I decided that the story of these boys and all child prisoners needed media attention, it was a way of embarassing the authorities into doing something.
I spent six months researching and preparing for the shoot. Finally I did the shoot with a local crew. We spent three weeks filming inside Cebu City prison.

But first we had to try day after day to get the permission to access the prison. Eventually, the authorities relented. We went in with 84-year old attorney Valenzona who visited the boys weekly.

I was humbled by her generosity. The lawyer was fighting for these kids in court and fighting to change the laws at a national level. The Valenzona's and some of the local people I met trying to help the children were among the most inspiring, unassuming people I have met anywhere in the world.

She helped me persuade the authorities to let us into the prison to film the boys.

When I arrived at the prison I was surprised by the lack of security for the prisoners. Everyone was free to roam between cells. The prison guards were kind to the kids most of the time. They thought they shouldn't be there either.

The most striking impression was the overcrowding. Some kids slept in the ceiling as there was no space on the floor. I was also struck by the age of the boys - eight-year-olds who could pass for six, it was shocking to see these young kids living in such squalor.

I had a local translator with me who spoke the different dialects of the Cebu area. The boys were happy to tell their stories, they were hoping it might help them get out of prison.

Thommy says that one bowl of rice is being shared by 11, sometimes 15 people
The kids stories were heartbreaking, most had only stolen food because they were hungry, and all of them desperately wanted to be loved and cared for by their parents, none of them were.

Most of the kids don't have any caring relatives, that is why they are in prison.

The main problems in the Philippines are poverty passed down from generation to generation, corruption at all levels of government, huge disparities in wealth and over population.

Also the ongoing armed conflict in Mindanao is affecting the situation for people in the Philippines.

Poverty or violence have led these kids to adopt survival strategies including migration onto the street, street work, begging, scavenging, petty thieving or prostitution. The children find that their very attempts at survival are criminalised and bring them inevitably into conflict with the law.

For the children, adopting a 'risky behaviour' is not a choice but a part of daily life.

I was fascinated by the the boys resilience and vulnerability and how children as young as eight work out ways to survive in the most horrible circumstances.

Like many prisons in developing countries, the jail was like a mini city with people trading things and whole families living inside.

It really was "law of the jungle" in the boys prison with a system of rules made up by the boys for themselves with some boys in charge and others doing their bidding – it was a bit like "lord of the flies" in prison. 

Thommy, the 11-year old boy, we spent most time with in the film, was in and out of jail from the age of nine. A lack of parental care and abject poverty were his lot. But he told us he "would only steal from the rich and those with snobbish faces".

In the mornings in prison, he would get up, having slept in the only pair of clothes he owns, would wash his face and queue in the prison courtyard for a bowl of rice.

He would spend his day hanging out with the other children and an adult or "uncle" who befriended him to run errands, probably to run drugs to other prisoners.

The parents spend their day drinking. Thommy's mother sold fish at the market when she wasn't drunk. Thommy's mother and father are fighting and blaming each other for Thommy ending up in prison, but in the end, neither of them cared what happened to him.

Like Freckles, 90 per cent of the imprisoned children have committed petty crimes

After he was released from jail, his mother told him he could not stay with her.

He had told us constantly how he was looking forward to go home to see his mother and brothers and sisters.

To see his mum reject him like that was heartbreaking.
And it was really hard to go home knowing the boys I filmed were still in prison.

I have not been back there to make another film, but I was in contact with the children through Esperanza Valenzona and her charity.

After I did the story, there were quite a few international stories on child prisoners in the Philippines. The ILO, UNICEF, Save the Children and many local NGO's began lobbying the government for change.

After a nine year campaign, the juvenile justice bill was passed. President Gloria Arroyo signed the bill on April 28, 2006.

It is now illegal to charge a minor under 15 of a crime in the Philippines. Previously a child of nine could be charged of a criminal offence.

After implementing the new law, the mammoth task of relocating thousands of children living in deplorable conditions in the country's adult prisons into alternative care began.

Juvenile detention centres were constructed; children are no longer being charged of a criminal offence and jailed, the priority is to either return them to their family or foster family, or to place them in alternative care.

But it was all too late for Thommy and his friends. Only one of the five boys I filmed went back to school, three are dead.

Thommy never got to realise his dream of becoming rich. Although clever and optimistic, in the end it was all too much for him to bear. He died of a heart attack after an overdose of Shabu (glue sniffing) when he was 14 years old.

His friend Bunso ("freckles") died after being hit by a car, he was 12.

The boys did not survive, because when they were released from prison they went back to living on the streets and doing what they had to to do ease their pain and quash their hunger pains.

Sadly, Thommy's story is similar to the estimated one million children still incarcerated in prisons around the world today.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera