Day two of four days on Palawan island. And the sky was extremely cloudy again. But I said to myself that I cannot wait any longer especially as Puerto Princesa does not have much more to offer than the cathedral, the seaside and the market all of which I have already ticked off.
I took the risk and drove off to one of the most renowned attractions on Palawan, the so called Palawan Prison and Penal Farm. It is about 18 Kilometres away from Puerto Princesa. And the visit there was one of the strangest and weirdest experiences I ever had as a traveller and photographer.
This prison camp is the biggest one on the island. But it is special as the inmates have the opportunity to live a life similar to one in freedom. The condition is that they have behaved well during their term in jail and over the time moved step by step through the three levels of security: maximum, medium and minimum. Once they have been released from the minimum security level the have the chance to build their own home on the compound. It is even possible to have their families living with them here and they can also receive some sort of professional training.
The compound comprises an area of over 48.000 hectares which are almost free of any boundaries or fences. Nevertheless escapes from this prison are below the average in the Philippines. Around 2.500 people are living in this prison.
When I arrived at the gate I had to register with my full name, address and the purpose of my visit. The latter question was actually a good question! Why was I here?
I have wondered before why a prison should open itself to tourists? Who would benefit from it? And we from the western world, who are used to question each and every step we make and each and every word we say, just to avoid getting out of the boundaries of political correctness, are hyper sensitive when it comes to such moral issues? So why would I come here?
I looked at what other visitors have written in the motivation column. And by far the biggest motivation was just “Tour”. That is frightening, of course, if you think about t. But sitting in front of a prison guard watching your registration, you don´t want to loose too much time contemplating about the moral issues and suggesting you do not really know why you chose this place as a must see attraction. Nor did I not want to be honest and write something like ” Taking lots of pictures and especially portraits of murderers, rapists and other serious criminals and hoping to finally come up with a great photo reportage that would be the breakthrough for me as a simple photographer”. So, in the end and without long thinking, i just joined the “Tour”-people and wrote down “Tour”. At least I added “Photography”!
After those formalities I was driving around the compound which was not different at all from driving around the countryside anywhere else. It just looked like a normal rural area.
After a short while I reached the Minimum Security Compound. I was welcome by two men who showed where to park my motorbike. It was just next to a tower. The immediately placed a bamboo ladder on very old and rotten stairs leading up to the platform. Without much talking they told me to climb up. As I was in a prison I thought I should better obey and climbed the pretty shaky ladder.
From the platform I had a view over the prison building and the courtyard. There was a tennis court which was also used to dry rice. Below the platform a few inmates were waving at me.
I took some images until one of the guys, an assistant guard, told me to stop now. He then gave me some very basic explanations about the camp before he asked me to buy some cigarettes for the inmates while he was holding a carton of local fags in his hand. All over the place there were No Smoking signs. When I raised this critical issue he just laughed and said no problem.
This guard wanted to have 50 Pesos (0,80 €) per package. I argued that this was totally overprized. But he insisted that the cigarettes outside the city would be much more expensive. There was no doubt at all that this man was making a lot of profit by appealing to the tourists heart and then selling them the cigarettes.
Again, I was in a prison and the guy was an officer, although not wearing a uniform, and I obeyed! I bought two packs for 100 Pesos. What followed now was absolutely unexpected and morally really more than critical. He told me to keep my camera ready aiming at the inmates in the courtyard. And while I was looking through the lens he started to throw the single cigarettes down to the prisoners who were trying to catch as many as they could. I pressed the button and took a few images of this happening.
The whole scenery resembled a performance of trained animals in a zoo. Once more I asked myself why this prison is open to tourists and who would benefit most from it.
I was then talking to an old guy behind the fence. He was a murderer and has spent 39 years of his life behind bars. He committed the murder when he was twenty. Now he hopes to be free next year.
I said goodbye before I was driving on and toured around the huge area. It was really like driving through a nice rural countryside but not through a prison compound. There were lots of rice paddies and every now and then I met some funny farm animals.
I finally reached the administration centre of the prison. A large square surrounded by some office buildings. Here I found a small kiosk and made a stop. The owner was an old lady whose defunct husband was head of the guards for many years. She is still allowed to run her small business here because her son now works a guard too. Only family members of the prison staff are allowed to live on the compound.
She also has two daughters both working in Dubai as a nurse in a hospital and a supervisor in a beauty saloon. They earn around 800 € per month and support their mother who could not survive with her kiosk. We talked around half an hour and she told me a lot about her life and the prison. Very nice lady and very nice talking!
By now the sky has cleared up a little bit and I decided to drive further down the coast.
To be continued.
Click the slide show above the post to see more images.