This is a BBRC cobol. They typically sleep three prisoners at a time and can be rented out by couples for between 20 and 50 pesos an hour. These inmates look relaxed because they are. They can receive all the visitors they want, and as long as they don’t try to break out of jail, they can do pretty much whatever they want. Three years ago, one of them set off a homemade bomb in the prison. When the chief warden tried to send him to solitary confinement, he laughed in the warden’s face.
n the island of Cebu in the Philippines, there are two jails. One is a third-world nightmare hell on earth full of happy, relaxed people. The other is a thoroughly modern facility where all the inmates are hateful, twitchy, and basically traumatized.
Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center is a 30-year-old prison designed to house about 250 prisoners. It’s currently holding 1,600. The prison is so packed that there’s not enough room for everyone to lie down at once, so the prisoners sleep in shifts, mostly three to a pile on tiny makeshift cots called cobols that are made out of rice sacks and wood scrap.
It’s also too full to close the prison doors, so the prisoners just clamber around as they please—murderers, embezzlers, bandits, and perverts rubbing shoulders and holding master classes. Apparently, it’s calmed down a lot since about 900 drug addicts were moved to a separate facility down the road.
Like a lot of prisons in the Philippines, the BBRC is built on the old colonial model: A square of dirt with a big wall around it. It’s a madhouse. The guards won’t set foot in the place unless they’re in a pack of 20 and covered by sharpshooters on the walls.
Plumbing is non-existent. There’s never enough food, and the best time to shower is when it rains. It sounds like the perfect example of the worst prison on earth, but it’s actually not so terrible. Because there are no guards—really—the prisoners have to organize things for themselves. They do this along cellblock lines. Although the doors to the cells are never closed, the prisoners operate under the rubric of 13 cellblocks, or brigades, with between 100 and 200 members to each 100-square-meter “home cell.”
Every cellblock elects its own bosyo, or mayor, whose job is to keep the peace and solve problems for the prisoners. He gets medicine for the sick, helps fill out paperwork, and organizes ritual beatings for prisoners who get out of line. The beatings are not too brutal, though, because any prisoner can just go join another cellblock if he feels hard done by. Basically, a bosyo characterized it to me like this: “If they step out of line, I spank the butt.”
CPDRC—Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center—is a few miles up the hill and has a totally different atmosphere.The final authority within the prison walls is the mayor de mayoris, who is elected by a council of cell leaders. All disputes between the brigades are referred up to him. He has his own separate police force within the prison, with a special unit for protecting visitors, a secretary, and the unbelievable luxury of a clock radio and a two-square-meter room.
Commerce is thriving. Shopkeepers (prisoners who run barter-based businesses) can buy cigarettes, dried fish, and soap from the police canteen. And property rates are on the rise. One inmate named Henry bought his one-cubic-meter sleeping box for 2,000 pesos a couple years ago, and it is now worth 3.5 grand.
Barbie, the four-time winner of the Miss BBRC beauty contest (yes, they really have that), gets 20 pesos a blowjob. He’s actually inclined to give them for free, but with all that cash flowing around, come on. People are happy to tip. People are happy.
Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center is different. It is a brand new prison built on the American model, with fingerprint scanners, closed-circuit TV, and orange uniforms. It’s run by Byron F. Garcia, and because he thinks it’s a jewel of a facility, he took me on a tour and let me photograph whatever I wanted. Here are some pictures from each place.
It’s a “Western-style” jail, with six to eight inmates to a cell.
CPDRC is officially governed by the inmates, but the guy who runs it, Byron F. Garcia, told me that he only lets the prisoners elect ex-cops and military officers to the positions of bosyo and mayor de mayoris. The current mayor is an ex-cop called Leo who is said to have killed five people.
When CPDRC was first opened a couple of years back, there were about 17 deaths in the first three months, and many of them happened in this cell. The inmates figured it was haunted because communist guerrillas used the site it’s built on as a mass grave during the 1980s. For this reason, people would do whatever they could to get out of the room. It got hysterical after a “white lady” was seen entering the prison on surveillance cameras in the middle of the night. Eventually, a Catholic priest was called in to do a full exorcism. He said he drove out all the evil spirits, including hundreds of aborted babies that crawled around during the prayer (so he told me). After the exorcism, the deaths suddenly stopped, and the cell is being used again.
I don’t know why this sign says this. I said something about his looking “too young to retire” and he laughed uncontrollably for about two minutes.
This is a perfect tattoo.
This one is Spiderman caught at the center of a giant web, surrounded by tropical flowers and crocodiles. Above him are the words “King David,” and below are a pair of loving hands joined by cuffs. Oh, and of course, Spiderman has spread his legs to reveal his vagina.
Most of these ladies are in the CPDRC for running shabu, a methlike stimulant that’s by far the most popular drug in the Philippines. It was described to me as “the poor man’s crack,” and it turns chilled-out locals into machete-wielding lunatics.
The nature of the females is disciplined and submissive. That’s why they not only sew prison uniforms but also carry out “livelihood projects,” such as making sequined bags.
This is Lindsay Amar. Her bunk is incredibly tricked out, even by house-proud Filipino standards. She has to-do lists, sunglasses, and baby powder within reach, as well as a decorated image of the patron saint of the Philippines and paintings of flowers and butterflies done on styrofoam dinner plates. The vertical straps allow her to rig up a privacy curtain.
The lesbian inmates are kept segregated in the next cell over from the straight women. All they do all day is have pillow fights in their underwear. (We wish.)
This is Byron F. Garcia with his bitches. The CPDRC gang tattoo is his name—no joke. All of these women have the official “Byron F. Garcia” insignia, which consists of a sword as the scales of justice and a red rose with thorns. Leo, the mayor de mayoris and ex-cop, has the same tattoo on his chest. Garcia runs the jail like his personal S&M dungeon, and he doesn’t care if you know it. Why should he? His sister is governor and his dad is a senator. You can’t touch him.
When not sitting around waiting, the prisoners do mass exercises in the yard. All 900 of them. Garcia had them do the “YMCA” for my amusement. It was incredibly depressing. He posted the video on YouTube under his real name.