Dancing Prisoners


Prisoners in an overcrowded cell, La Trinindad Prison, Benguet

I'm usually pretty well insulated from the latest internet sensations, but given my interest in prisons and prisoners in the Philippines, friends have seen fit to alert me to the youtube phenomenon of the dancing inmates of Cebu jail.
[For those even more clueless than I am: a thousand or so elaborately choreographed inmates dancing to an odd assortment of music from the eighties, most notably Michael Jackson's "Thriller."]
And I really can't decide what to think.
Part of me can't help but love it for being so bizarrely, quintessentially Filipino. In a country where daytime television shows open with routines by groups with names like "Viva Hot Babes" and the "Sex Bomb Dancers" and cabbies unwind after their noon to 4 am shifts by tunelessly moaning along to schmaltzy pop songs at sidewalk eateries cum videoke bars, the sight of a thousand orange jump suited inmates dancing in unison to the Village People makes a certain kind of sense that I suspect it probably wouldn't anywhere else in the world. [I miss my hyphen key]
Not to mention that the lead role in some of the ensembles is danced by a bakla [neither transvestite, transgendered or drag queen quite precisely translates, but you get the picture], in prison and surrounded by a thousand or so inmates, and no one seems to find this the least bit odd.
And then, of course, I'm always in favor of dancing, and of things that help to humanize prisoners in the eyes of the public. And just about anything is better than sitting in a cell all day.
And yet, I suspect there's some back story here that we're not getting. I did a somewhat desultory search [hey, i'm also trying to move, write, establish residency, etc.] and really couldn't figure out if participation was voluntary or compulsory, how many hours of practice people were doing a day, how people were chosen for roles, or really any details at all.
More than anything else though, I'm afraid these videos trivialize the problems of prisons in the Philippines and in the third world in general. [the larger problem of the entire concept of prison systems is too big an issue to tackle right here and now]
It's possible, and I sincerely hope, that the prison in Cebu is an exception. But when I visited prisoners in the Philippines, I was confronted with brutalized, hungry, ill inmates kept in conditions so appalling that thinking about it still shakes me up. A few excerpts from a report I wrote last summer:
The prisoners lack even basic necessities. They are not provided with soap, toothpaste, laundry detergent or other toiletries. Each cell is given food rations, which they are responsible for cooking for themselves. The rations are insufficient and sometimes arrive only every other day. Some of the prisoners report that at times they have nothing to eat but rice and salt.... Overcrowding also increases the physical hardship in the prison. The cells do not have enough beds for all of the prisoners, so some double up and the rest ... sleep on the concrete floor. The cells themselves are exposed to the elements. One wall and the ceiling are just bars facing an open corridor. Benguet province is one on the coldest parts of the Philippines, and in the winter months the temperature can be close to freezing. The prisoners are only allowed to leave their cells once a week for a 15-minute sunbath, which is cancelled if it is raining at the scheduled time. Consequently, colds, flu’s, and fevers are rampant in the prison. Medicine to treat these problems is not easily available.

You get the idea.


torture victims [since released] in La Trinidad


18 year old torture victim [since released]


this little corner was the designated "bed" of the prisoner above.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that while I really don't have enough information to know whether these dance routines, and the attention they've gotten, are a good thing for the specific prisoners involved in them, I suspect that it's going to make serious debate about prison reforms in the Philippines even more difficult than it already is.