Philippines, Iwahig, prison, law, Jofelle Tesorio and Ariel Carlos

In the Philippines rather than sentencing murders or rapists to death –some are sent to a prison without walls.

At Asia’s only such jail 3,000 inmates live and work on a 30,000 hectare piece of land in one of the country’s most beautiful regions.

Carlo Mercedez works, like many people, behind a computer in this simple office for 8 hours a day – Monday to Friday.

“Then I get weekends off to spend time with my family,” he says.

The only thing is that Carlo is a prisoner, who is serving 30 years for rape. And his office day is broken up by roll counts.

“At 6 in the morning we have head count, then we go back to prepare to go to the office at 8am. We go home at 12noon to have lunch then go back at the office at 1pm. At 4pm, there is another head counting. Then we can go home.”

He is one of 3,000 inmates in this unique prison without walls.

“I’ve been here in Iwahig for seven years. I don’t know when I will be released but I already served my minimum sentence since 2011.”

Carlo’s has served his minimum sentence so he is allowed to live in a half-way house with his wife and three young children. They go to this school inside the open-air prison’s facility.

Newer Inmates serving time for murder, rape and drug dealing are also free to work inside the prison grounds during the day but are locked up at night.

“Iwahig is called a Prison Without Walls…..”said Richard Schwarzkopf Jr., the Penal Superintendent.

And he is proud of Iwahig being one of the biggest open prisons in the world… and the only one of its kind in Asia.

“We can say about the uniqueness Iwahig as prison without bars maybe because of its vast location, natural environment and way of treating inmates…I must say that some of our existing programs being undertaken can be adapted, if suited to other prison facilities.”

There is a rice farming, coconut plantations, poultry, fishpond and vegetable farms on the 30,000 hectares prison. Based on their skills, inmates are given jobs from farming to office work.

And the place has also become some what of a tourist attraction. Aldrin who is serving for 20 years for crime he doesn’t want to talk about makes a living from selling handicrafts to tourists.

“Those who want to see Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm and our historical buildings, please visit us. You can help us, inmates, by visiting this facility and buy souvenir items.”

One of his customers today is Jobert James from Manila.

“When you heard the word prison, normally you think of inmates being behind walls. So I thought Iwahig would be dangerous because inmates are outside. I was afraid that they might harm us. Because you see, they’re convicts… But my impression has changed. It is really safe here.”

During the Spanish colonial period dissents were exiled to this area. Under American rule it was also a penal colony. The prison is surrounded by thick mangrove forest, a mountain range and a highway. These natural barriers are the only things that separates the prisoners from the outside world.

It’s Xerxes Sebido’s job as a prison guard to keep track of the inmates. He says each year around four or five escape.

“It’s not easy to guard so many inmates but the number of guards has been increased. We have also implemented new security measures. And we are strengthening our rehabilitation and reformation programs. This helps the inmates to have a clear outlook on life and not think of escaping anymore.”

Xerxes and the other guards also live on site.

“We are given a piece of land here to build our house so our families can stay with us. This is also one strategy of the Bureau of Corrections to keep the employees near when something happens like when a prisoner escapes.”

Penal Superintendent Richard Schwarzkopf Jr says those who escape are usually easily caught. He would like no one to escape but instead of building walls he is working on making prisoners want to stay.

“We have many reformation programs being implemented and enhanced such as the basic education and technical-vocational education for the inmates; the moral and religious, sports and recreation, behavioral modification, health and welfare and work and livelihood programs”.

Back at the office inmate Carlo Mercedez is encoding a file on his computer. He says while he feels lucky that he can still live with his family he longs for life outside Prison Without Walls.

“As an inmate who lives with his family, I am happy but as a prisoner, it is not as happy as when you are a free man in the society.”

Penal Superintendent Richard Schwarzkopf Jr says that 10 percent of Iwahig’s prisoners became repeat offenders after being released. This is lower than the national average. The jail has also had no recent history of riots or mass breakouts.

Most other jails in the Philippines have brutal conditions, with inmates packed beyond capacity in dingy, airless cells and having to take turns sleeping.

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