For Erwin Sesaelanee, an inmate at Quezon City Jail in Manila for the past 16 years, finding a spot to sleep is impossible.
About 3,500 inmates call the facility home, even though it should house no more than 800 according to national standards – and no more than 278 under UN guidelines.
“You see, they are lying on the floor. All of my fellow inmates are lying on the floor. It is very difficult to sleep. It is very difficult to think,” Sesaelanee says, gesturing to the inmates packed into his cell like sardines.
“They are even lying on the stairs because there are no places to sleep.”
In a visit to the jail this month, This Week in Asia saw inmates sleeping on the staircase, floors, and every unoccupied spot they could find.
The jail houses only those who have not yet been convicted, such as Sesaelanee, 42, whose trial is still ongoing even after all these years.
Since Rodrigo Duterte became president on June 30, his war on drugs has led to a surge in offenders being killed or thrown in jail and the increase has further clogged a judicial system that now routinely takes years to process cases like Sesaelanee’s.
Sesaelanee says that when he was first locked up each inmate could sleep on their own bed.
Since then he has noticed the prison getting ever more crowded, but it was after Duterte became president that the situation reached boiling point. The number of inmates neared 3,900 at one point, though it has now fallen back after the prison began refusing to accept any more.
“Me and my fellow inmates want to change. The community, please help my fellow inmates to change...they don’t want to die. I have my family. If I die, who takes care of them?” Sesaelanee says, in a reference to Duterte’s pre-election warning that he would kill all drug offenders.
The stench at the entrance of the jail is unbearable, made worse by the scorching weather.
Each cell has a ceiling about three metres high and contains bunk beds. A few people share each bunk and more sleep on the floor. Inmates cross their arms to sleep to maximise the space, while some sleep on the tables.
Last year, there were 285 cases of tuberculosis reported inside the jail.
Unlike prisons in Hong Kong, where inmates are locked inside their cells except for a few hours each day when they can exercise in open areas, Philippine jails typically allow inmates to go wherever they want inside the facility, whenever they want.
Inmates can cook their own meals if the prison food is not to their liking and there is usually a gym and a chapel.
At Quezon City Jail, inmates typically wake at 6am and attend a national flag-raising ceremony two hours later. This is followed by a morning exercise session featuring singing and dancing.
According to the jail’s chief inspector, Rosielyn Carta, inmates dance not only for their health, but to earn points that can shorten their sentences.
Carta admits the overcrowding has become a “nightmare” in terms of security, adding that many inmates must sleep on the basketball court.
“Now in the Philippines, it is [often] raining. If it is night time, they need to wait for the rain to stop so they can sleep. They take turns in sleeping,” she says.
The decision to stop accepting more inmates is just a short-term remedy, Carta says. She is also working with the International Committee of the Red Cross in drafting a proposal for a new jail in Quezon City. They will submit the proposal to the local government in a few months.
Meanwhile, two hours from Carta’s jail, a storm is brewing in the country’s most notorious jail, the New Bilibid Prison, which houses only convicted criminals and was at the centre of a scandal in December 2014 when a raid found inmates to be living in luxury cells, some of which included saunas, stripper bars and, in one case, a music studio.
“The convicted drug lords, if they have the money they can buy spaces,” says Brenda Canapi, head of the visitorial division at the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines. “They can have king-size beds, jacuzzis, televisions and appliances that ordinary inmates don’t have.”
A source adds that illegal gambling and drugs are rife inside the prison. “The only difference between prison and the outside world is that there are walls separating the prison from the outside,” the source says.
Soon after Duterte became president, the police’s Special Action Force took over the prison in an effort to crack down on the drug lords who were continuing to control their empires from behind bars.
The officers conduct frequent inspections to check if the prisoners are in possession of any forbidden items from drugs to weapons – actions the source acknowledges are beginning to have an effect.
“In the past, as long as you had the money, you could do anything you wanted. But now the police officers take your money and beat you up,” the source says, adding that the officers are especially hostile to Chinese prisoners, who play a major role in the drug trade.
A handful of Chinese drug offenders have been killed inside the prison in recent months, according to the source. Last month, a riot broke out in which a Chinese drug lord called Tony Co was stabbed to death and three others injured inside the maximum security compound that holds the most high-profile convicts.
Even so, the administration will have its work cut out if it is to succeed in dislodging the grip of the most powerful prisoners, who have long grown used to their privileges.
“It is impossible to restore order inside the New Bilibid Prison,” says the source. “It is just impossible.”
For a president used to tackling problems in unconventional ways, such words might almost seem like a challenge.