The story of Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) involves 1,500+ dancing prisoners, one prison warden-cum-vaudevillian director, and nearly five million YouTube views. At best, the immensely viral video of inmates lurching to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is a unique, Web-powered view into a rehabilitation center on the other side of the globe. At worst, it’s a voyeuristic peep show in an ongoing prisoner rights abuse case.
When asked for comment, Amnesty International responded:
Amnesty International has no position or statement regarding this particular case – although we have promoted and championed prisoner’s [sic] rights and the duty to treat all individuals with respect. It appears that this video you speak of denies the individuals in the video of these tenets. There are many individual circumstances which Amnesty International is unable to speak to directly due to resources and various priorities.
CPDRC is the creation of Byron F. Garcia, a provincial security consultant with the Filipino prison system and presumably the uploader of the original YouTube video whose user name is “byronfgarcia.” This user also uploaded what appears to be a promotional video of the CPDRC’s “new approach to penology.” Garcia explains the Busby Berkeley style calisthenics in the Sun Star: “While the goal is to keep the body fit in order to keep the mind fit, such may not actually happen if it is not done in a manner deemed pleasurable. Music, being the language of the soul, is added to that regimen.”
A segment on a leading Filipino television network shows the organized dance routines as a powerfully positive force in the rehabilitation process. However, the video, with it’s semi-coherent subtitles, raises some suspicions.
The narrator explains: “The main reason why this gimmick was created was Byron’s love of music, that’s why last year he thought of having these people dance. At first, it was really hard to make them dance.” Mr. Garcia elaborates: “These prisoners were all hard-headed. So, well we, we, did some, ya know, uh, some disciplinary measures. [sic] ”
We learn that Dodong Niere and Wenjell Resane, who dance as “Michael Jackson” and “Ola Ray,” respectively, are both being held on drug-related charges. Which brings us back to Karina’s point that “[T]hese guys are really good at pretending to be zombies, and considering that it’s quite possible a portion of this group have been incarcerated for murder, rape and/or other violent crimes, the skill with which they mimic the undead is incredibly frightening.”
However, it is a post at ViceLand.com, put up at the start of 2007 — months before the appearance and meme-dom of the “Thriller” video — that is the most chilling. The piece and its follow-up blog by Adam Jasper paint a very different picture of the Filipino jail house rock.
Instead of the model of peaceful rehabilitation, Jasper describes a dismal and corrupt second-world hell. From 18 deaths in the first two weeks — deaths that were blamed on ghosts, no less — to Garcia tattooing his name onto female prisoners, Jasper’s piece reveals that all is not well at CPDRC. The Vice post was edited into a video that incorporates the piece’s photos and captions, including one that states matter-of-factly: “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.”
None of the parties involved in posting these videos or articles have responded to e-mail, blog comments, or YouTube messages. As byronfgarcia continues to post videos of his inmates dancing at the capitol, what’s going on behind the scenes back in the prison? Mr. Garcia seems eager to show the public his new model for penology. But with evidence of tattooed concubinage and the unsettling popularity of Gracia’s YouTube, is this really new-age rehabilitation, or age-old exploitation?