On the island of Cebu in the Philippines, there are two jails. One is a third-world nightmare hell on earth full of happy, relaxed people. The other is a thoroughly modern facility where all the inmates are hateful, twitchy, and basically traumatized.
Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center is a 30-year-old prison designed to house about 250 prisoners. It’s currently holding 1,600. The prison is so packed that there’s not enough room for everyone to lie down at once, so the prisoners sleep in shifts, mostly three to a pile on tiny makeshift cots called cobols that are made out of rice sacks and wood scrap.
It’s also too full to close the prison doors, so the prisoners just clamber around as they please—murderers, embezzlers, bandits, and perverts rubbing shoulders and holding master classes. Apparently, it’s calmed down a lot since about 900 drug addicts were moved to a separate facility down the road.
Like a lot of prisons in the Philippines, the BBRC is built on the old colonial model: A square of dirt with a big wall around it. It’s a madhouse. The guards won’t set foot in the place unless they’re in a pack of 20 and covered by sharpshooters on the walls.
Plumbing is non-existent. There’s never enough food, and the best time to shower is when it rains. It sounds like the perfect example of the worst prison on earth, but it’s actually not so terrible. Because there are no guards—really—the prisoners have to organize things for themselves. They do this along cellblock lines. Although the doors to the cells are never closed, the prisoners operate under the rubric of 13 cellblocks, or brigades, with between 100 and 200 members to each 100-square-meter “home cell.”
Every cellblock elects its own bosyo, or mayor, whose job is to keep the peace and solve problems for the prisoners. He gets medicine for the sick, helps fill out paperwork, and organizes ritual beatings for prisoners who get out of line. The beatings are not too brutal, though, because any prisoner can just go join another cellblock if he feels hard done by. Basically, a bosyo characterized it to me like this: “If they step out of line, I spank the butt.”