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Strangers Offered Me Drugs in Manila, and I Ended Up in a Cramped Jail For a Week

The first-person story on a man's brief but horrifying experience in the Philippines' criminal justice system.
Kara Ortiga
as told to Kara Ortiga
Sydney, AU
man in Manila prison
An inmate in Quezon City Jail in Manila, 2016. Photo by Damir Sagolj/ Reuters

It was a Thursday night—I was in my apartment, expecting to do a lot of work. I had projects I needed to finish. But I had accidentally cut myself and started bleeding, so I decided to look for first aid, and while I was at it, dinner. I left my place at around 11:30 pm. The air-conditioning was still on, The Lord of the Rings was still playing.

After eating, I took another route home, different from my usual. There were guys in pairs who were loitering around.


“Psst,” they called, “are you looking for women?”

I stopped. “What kind of women?" I asked. "What else do you have?”

“We have chongki (weed),” they responded.

I don’t like weed. I asked if they had meth. They did.

The first time I tried meth was in 2013 with friends. We only used it four or five times within a span of six months. It's hard to source and always done in dodgy conditions.

“It’s 1,500 pesos ($29 USD),” the guy said. He took my money and left. I stood there with the other guy, when somebody else came with two small plastic bags. “Come with me,” he said.

I followed him into a narrow alley full of shanties. He told me to go inside a house, and asked for another 1,500 pesos. I just wanted to get the meth and go home, but he wanted me to smoke it with him.

We sat down, he took out the paraphernalia—some foil and a straw—and he took a hit. When he passed it to me, there was no more left. This is when I felt that I was being led on. He said he’d be back, and left me in the room. I found this unusual, shouldn’t it just be a quick exchange? I waited anyway.

Watch: Duterte's Drug War Reaches A Turning Point After Teen's Murder

Suddenly, three policemen in plain clothes barged in. “You motherfucker,” they yelled. They handcuffed me. “You’re going to jail you fool! Sit down and shut up, you motherfucker!”

They read me my rights, took my wallet and searched through it. “You’re caught now. You’re a drug pusher,” they yelled. I was in shock.


My defense mechanism was to threaten them back. “You will lose your jobs tomorrow,” I bragged confidently, thinking this would work, even though I don't have that kind of connections. “You won’t get anything from this.”

In the precinct, they allowed me to make one phone call. I called a colleague. They took my belongings away, filed a report, and asked me to take a drug test. They gave me water that was yellow so I could pee. I didn’t question it anymore because I wanted to get it over with.

At around 4:30 am the police were done questioning me. I remember thinking how smelly, dirty, and crowded the cell looked—I didn’t really think I would ever be in it. I only realised I was not going home that morning when the police told me to go inside.

It was the start of my denial phase. I became aggressive. I couldn’t believe I was in jail, held in custody with other remand inmates who were waiting for the hearings of their charges. Depending on the crime, bail is an available option until the trial, but many of them cannot afford it. Waiting for hearings can take months, sometimes even years.

I wanted answers, believing that there should be some way out. The other inmates didn’t like it. “Motherfucker, shut your mouth,” they said, as one of the inmates pulled the back of my shirt, and punched me in the face so I would shut up. I defended myself, punching back, before being caught in a brawl as more came to join. I took blow after blow, receiving and throwing the most punches in my life. My clothes were torn. The “mayor” of the cell, the designated alpha leader, pointed a homemade sharp object to my neck, and said “If you don’t stop, we will make your life here miserable.”


Two days later, I became more subservient. I was exhausted. The other inmates already made me sleep by the toilet and ordered me to clean the floors. That same day, I had my inquisition. The arresting officers had charged a case against me as a drug pusher, but the prosecutor determined that I was only to be charged as a user, and that I was eligible to post bail.

When we got back to the precinct, I was assigned to a new cell. It was more crowded: about 60 people shared a 20-something square meter room. It was so tight that when it was time to sleep at night, bodies overlapped on the floor like a jigsaw puzzle. But I was treated well here.

Visitors are only allowed in three times a day. They usually bring food and money. All my visitors brought money, and I would give it to the cell’s mayor, who acts as the treasurer inside. He sets a budget for food for all the inmates, which is given to a runner to buy. Since my visitors always handed over money, I became a “VIP”—I slept in a good area, and people didn’t hurt me. Those who don't have visitors became the “slaves” because they essentially eat for free. Here, I realized what money can really do for you.

The following Monday, my brother visited with a letter from my dad. I read the letter thousands of times that day, uncontrollably crying every time. The criminals comforted me. I felt like my dad hadn’t forgotten about me. I didn’t feel abandoned. It finally sank in—how the hell did I get myself into this situation?


Inside, all the inmates could do is sleep, read, talk to each other, or do chores. Sometimes they gamble with a coin game called cara cruz (heads or tails). Twice a day, inmates are forced to take a shower and clean up to avoid skin diseases that can spread from an overcrowded room. We were only allowed out for exercise once that week, which lasted for about an hour. We ran around in a circle and did some stretching, then it was back to the windowless cell.

I waited everyday to hear good news about my bail, but because of a lot of red tape in the process, and because I had minimal communication with my family who knew updates, I had no clue about the progress of my case. By the sixth day, I had submitted to the idea that this would be my life. I started to open up to the other inmates, listened to their stories. A lot of them have children. Most were embroiled in meth-related cases.

I became close to Tatay Ed, one of the other inmates, an elderly construction worker caught for using meth by his employer. He was quiet and regretful, and we consoled each other. “Look at you, you are different from us," he said. "You don’t belong here.” But I said, “We are both here Tatay, We all make mistakes.”

On Friday, after eight days, the officers called my name. “You have a visitor. It’s your dad,” they said. I was scared shitless. I was ashamed. I am a shit son, I thought. He’s going to punch me.

He walked to the cell, and the first thing he said to me was, “Sorry it took me a while to get here, traffic was bad.”

My bail was approved. I was going to be let out of the precinct. I would wait another two months until my case would reach court. In my hearing, the case was dismissed due to procedural lapses in my arrest: evidence was not properly marked and photographed in front of a representative, which questioned the integrity of the seized evidence.

As I prepared to leave the cell, the inmates began to count down, 60, 59, 58… I started crying. I hugged them goodbye. Before my arrest, I never thought about the war on drugs in the Philippines, because I could see that drug transactions continued on. I had made a lot of bad lifestyle decisions, reaching a point in my life where I felt I could do whatever I wanted without repercussions. If this didn’t happen to me, I could’ve been in worse situations.

When you’re in jail, it is just a waiting game, and there’s nothing you can do. The inconvenience of the living situation, and the fact there is no concept of time at all—that’s what drove me nuts, because it felt like I was there for one month. One hour there is like one week. Time stops. It is hell. It is really hell.