• Tue
  • Sep 23, 2014
  • Updated: 3:19am
NewsAsia
PHILIPPINES

All's well at Philippines' innovative Iwahig prison in paradise

Murderers wander with machetes at Philippine jail with unique approach to reforming criminals

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 3:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 7:32pm

One hundred convicts armed with machetes wander through a vast prison without walls in one of the Philippines' most beautiful islands, a unique approach to reforming criminals.

Two token guards with shotguns slung on their shoulders relax in the shade nearby as the blue-shirted group of inmates chop weeds at a rice paddy at the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm on Palawan island.

But Arturo, who is 21 years into a life sentence for murder, has no plans to escape, preferring to keep his chances of an early release or even a pardon.

"I don't want to live the life of a rat, panicked into bolting into a hole each time a policeman comes my way," the 51-year-old inmate said.

Surrounded by a thick coastal mangrove forest, a mountain range and a highway, the 26,000-hectare Iwahig jail is one of the world's largest open prisons, more than two times the size of Paris.

A single guard sits at its largely ceremonial main gate, routinely waving visitors through without inspection.

A shallow ditch, but no walls, is all that separates the 3,186 prisoners from the outside world.

A few hundred hectares of the land is devoted to rice paddies, which sit on either side of a fire-tree-lined dirt road. Ducks, goats, cattle and egrets feed quietly on newly harvested plots.

Fish ponds, coconut plantations, corn fields and vegetable plots are scattered across the prison, although most of the land remains covered by forest and mangroves.

Most other jails in the Philippines continue with brutal conditions, with inmates packed beyond capacity in dingy, airless cells and having to take turns sleeping. But at Iwahig, and four smaller penal farms in other provincial areas, authorities have sought to take advantage of the open spaces to create conditions that encourage the rehabilitation of inmates.

"This farm work serves as their preparation for getting back into a free society once they are released. It helps them adapt back to life as free men," said prison superintendent Richard Schwarzkopf.

Most Iwahig inmates come from Manila's main Bilibid prison, a far smaller facility that holds 22,000 convicts and which requires periodic prisoner transfers to ease the overcrowding.

Instead of the squalid, sardine can-like cells of Bilibid, night quarters for most of Iwahig's inmates are lightly guarded buildings that are bigger than a basketball court, surrounded by barbed wire rather than concrete or metal walls.

About 50 lucky minimum-security inmates live full-time in straw-and-bamboo huts scattered along the penal farm, assigned to guard the crops, tractors and other implements.

There are just 150 maximum-security inmates who must work indoors and remain in a more tightly secured environment.

But murderers and other previous maximum-security prisoners can qualify for the outdoors if they have served at least half their sentence and have a record of good behaviour. A life sentence is regarded as a 40-year term.

Schwarzkopf said the modern approach to penology had been a success.

He said less than 10 per cent of Iwahig's prisoners became repeat offenders after being released, lower than the national average.

Schwarzkopf said there had been just one breakout since he took over leadership of the prison in 2012: involving four inmates serving terms for murder, attempted murder and car theft.

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