are happy, smiling, singing and dancing – the prisoners of the Cebu
Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) in Cebu Province,
Philippines – are, ostensibly a shining example of prisoner
rehabilitation through the arts. The prisoners of this high security
penitentiary came to fame in one of the viral video hits of2007 when
their performance of the Michael Jackson song Thriller was unleashed on
the internet, amassing close to 50 million views.
chief of the prison, Byron F Garcia, scion of one of the Philippines
most powerful political families, originated the idea when looking for a
way to keep his prisoners fit and active – both physically and
mentally. Song and dance is an integral part of Philippine culture so
when he conceived of something akin to Busby Berkeley numbers for the
incarcerated - with all of their visual appeal of hundreds of people in
choreographed unity - he was on to a winner.
the Thriller video had become an internet meme, he quickly followed it
up with other songs which had previously been global hits in their own
right, including In the Navy and YMCE by the Village People – ironically
used, it seems, to persuade the more macho prisoners in the jail to
join in the fun and the process of rehabilitation.
is a smaller women’s section attached to the main prison and the female
inmates are also allowed to take part in the dance routines. However,
some of the female roles in the dance routines are taken by male
prisoners who are disposed to a little cross dressing.
there is the moot point really – almost immediately after the first
video was posted online, many experts pointed out that the likelihood of
dance routines being useful for rehabilitation – let alone enabling
them to avoid recidivism – was, well, not that likely to be frank. Not
only that but Garcia (pictured above) and his staff were also
accused of using coercion and violence to encourage the prisoners to
participate in the routines. When interviewed, both Garcia and the
inmates have strenuously denied any abuse – but to paraphrase Mandy
Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
the face of it, Garcia’s dance programme does have certain merits – the
prison is overcrowded and cramped – and its prisoners not known, on the
outside world at least, for their patience with others. In 2007 over
three hundred of them were awaiting trial for murder. The gangs in
which they operated on the outside world were thriving in the custodial
atmosphere of the penitentiary.
needed to break down these factions on the inside in order to ensure
that the prisoners could have a gang-free start on their eventual
release. There is no death penalty in the Philippines at the moment so
most of the prisoners in the pictures here will at some future point be
released. Yet you can’t help but wonder what the reaction of death row
prisoners in the USA might be, were they to be told that they were to
participate in something similar.
prison chief’s brainchild got off to a shaky start – many of the staff
at the prison were wary about the sheer scale of the project in terms of
prisoner participation. The prisoners, too, were not ecstatic at the
prospect of putting on their dancing shoes for the world – one visiting
choreographer was battered under a barrage of slippers upon his arrival
at the penitentiary. However, eventually the idea took hold through the
gentle persuasive techniques of the chief and his staff and although
the first routine took a while to master, after six months the
experiment was deemed a success.
the subject of footwear, it is said that many of the prisoners – who
must practice for many hours a day wearing only cheap prison provided
sandals – have suffered from a variety of foot related complaints yet
when the video was first released in 2007 it became an instant hit –
with millions scratching their heads at the bizarre end result of
Garcia’s rehabilitation through dance initiative.
face it – the sight of 1500 prisoners all dancing in unison is going to
garner a few hits on the internet, as well as the associated
advertising revenue that comes for the owner of the YouTube channel upon
which it was posted. Row upon row of orange clad inmates, with the P
for Prisoner writ large on their backs, dancing complex movements in
apparent harmony, is something of a feast for the eyes.
was of no surprise, then, that the prison soon began to charge the
throng of tourists turning up to watch the prisoners dance in the flesh.
Visitors can have their pictures taken with the prisoners and buy
t-shirts as a memento of their visit. Rehabilitation can turn a profit,
it seems, but of course the serious moral purpose underpinning the
project was hardly likely to be forgotten.
fact the contestants from the Philippine version of Celebrity Big
Brother found themselves unwittingly parachuted (not literally) in to
the prison to lend their D-list skills to this important social
project. This is all part of what Garcia has referred to as
‘revolutionized penology’ yet it is hardly a new concept. Jeremy
Bentham posited a panopticon prison in 1785 which allowed the public and
jailers to watch prisoners without the prisoners being aware of being
watched. YouTube adequately fulfils that function in the twenty first
is a good question – the one worth millions of dollars figuratively and
literally – do the prisoners participate in a process of rehabilitation
through these dance spectaculars? Some professors of criminal justice
have denounced the activities as the CPDRC while their captors insist
that it is a fundamentally unflawed way of encouraging prisoners to put
themselves together physically and perhaps even spiritually. If only
the persistent rumors of widespread abuse and coercion were not so,
well, persistent, they might – just might - have a point.