Even jails are more fun in the PhilippinesBy Malou Guanzon-Apalisok
Cebu Daily News
I couldn’t help but engage in wordplay as I went over reports and Web photos of the musical, “The Prison Dancer” to be shown next month in the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
The annual three-week (July 9 to 28) gala in New York City is a venue for new musicals of mostly young, media savvy contemporary artists. This year, more than 30 new productions will be staged in the Big Apple’s midtown theater district. This is a must-see and be-seen event for leaders and workers in the musical theater industry because a successful NYMF run is a ticket to go Broadway, considered the highest level of commercial theater in the English-speaking world.
A slice of Cebu and the Philippines will be presented in the “Prison Dancer,” created by Filipino Canadians Romeo Candido and Carmen de Jesus. The story tells of the transforming power of love set in the most unforgiving location.
The musical is based on Cebu’s dancing jailbirds who became Internet superstars after their dance-based rehabilitation program was uploaded in the video-sharing website YouTube. More than 10 million people watched inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) dance to the tune of Michael Jackson’s monster hit, “Thriller.” The video became viral in 2005.
The dance program was conceived by Byron Garcia, who served as Capitol consultant on security matters in 2004. Gov. Gwen Garcia had called in his younger brother to address problems at the old prison plagued by gang riots, drug and gun smuggling and corruption among jail officers.
Byron brought in his no-nonsense style of management and saw the transfer of 2,000 inmates to a much larger facility in barangay Kalunasan. He pushed for the setting up of state of the art security equipment and disciplinary measures, livelihood programs for inmates and complemented these with an exercise regimen that later evolved into dance classes and well-choreographed numbers.
As a result, the violent incidents abated, inmates’ health improved, and recidivism rates went down dramatically. The “Thriller” rehab program had the world on its feet and was reason enough for the New York Times and a British broadcast company to interview Byron Garcia in August 2005.
When I wrote about the dancing jailbirds seven years ago, I cautioned Garcia that fame can be heady stuff and there is danger that the overwhelming international response to the dancing inmates could trivialize what should be substantive concept in rehabilitating offenders in the context of the country’s penal system.
I wrote that Garcia might want to compare recidivism rates between offenders who experienced the “Thriller” program and those who didn’t. That kind of empirical study would be vital for the prison system not just in the Philippines, but also abroad. In many countries in the west, especially in the United States, barbaric treatment of prisoners had become widespread and have turned state prisons into feudal turfs of corrupt prison officials.
In sum, the overwhelming success of the “Thriller” should have prompted the national government to rationalize the rehab concept and allow other countries to look at the CPDRC like a penal laboratory. I believe the dancing inmates’ mended ways and new outlook was fresh material for rehab planning. Unfortunately, interest on the “Thriller” did not go beyond counting hits on YouTube.
Seven years after the program broke out in the national and global scene, how are things in the CPDRC?
Reports that prison officials continue to hold surprise raids in which assorted weapons and cell phones had been confiscated indicate that bad habits have returned. And what about reports that the ex-mayor of Lezo, Aklan who is being detained for murdering a radioman was able to get out of his cell to eat in his favorite restaurant in the company of a jail escort without permission from the court?
Another sad note to this story is Byron’s sacking as Capitol consultant for security matters in early 2010, an offshoot, it was reported, of a falling out between him and Gov. Garcia. The official line then was that the governor will not sign a new contract pending review of Byron’s performance. The issue turned controversial as rumors swirled that he pocketed donations from local and international sources.
Byron did not get back his consultancy job at Capitol. He recently landed in the news for standing up against what he thinks are excesses of a real estate developer. I wonder how he feels that his brainchild has inspired a new generation of artists to produce a musical. Did they send him an invitation?
Still, credit goes to Byron for making use of practical ideas in the reintegration of offenders. Prison can deaden a man’s soul but Garcia did his homework by enabling thousands of prisoners to dance away their fears, loneliness and desperation. Many found new meaning in their lives and they will certainly remember Byron for a long time.
If only he looked beyond the novelty and glitter of it all.