The Iwahig Prison Colony on the island of Palawan


After a quick "American breakfast", we set off to the Iwahig prison colony located 30K outside of Puerto Princessa. There was a 9:30 jeepney going in that direction, but we were too obsessed with the idea of breakfast to make the ride. Our next option was to hire a tricycle. It was a long trip to be undergoing by tricycle and we were smart enough to pick a good one. Tricycles are constantly going by and simply standing on the street a few minutes is all that it took to spot a new one. The one we flagged down was a two week old Kawasaki 155. This was a fast, powerful bike which had more than enough power to pull hills even when loaded down with three passengers. This may seem like a strange concern, but many of the tricycles we rode during our stay were barely road worthy and had trouble pulling hills. One would not go into first gear at all. When going up a hill, the driver's solution was to burn the clutch in second while pushing the bike with his left foot like a toy scooter.

Gina and Tad left the hotel for the same destination well before we did. Their transportation was the tricycle driven by our loyal "servant-guide" Ike. Ike's bike was one of the fore-mentioned tricycles of questionable mechanical soundness. Our driver ran his new trike at 55-60 KPH and was able to pass most every other vehicle on the road. It wasn't long before we came upon a thick blue smoke screen in the road ahead which we quickly recognized as the emissions from Ike's trike. We passed them and arrived at the prison almost ten minutes ahead of them.

The Iwahig penal colony is a low security work farm. Over a thousand prisoners live and work around a central village square. Iwahig is a very different concept in penile confinement from the traditional prison system in most places. This colony has no major walls or barriers to keep prisoners in. The main security precaution was gathering all prisoners together in the village square three times a day for head counts. The small size and remoteness of the island of Palawan is the primary factor which discourages escape. Transportation off the island is almost impossible for a prisoner to arrange on his own and fleeing to the remote mountains of Palawan would mean almost certain death from malaria. For these reasons, escape attempts were rare at Iwahig. A factor which encourages prisoners to stay are the living conditions. They are every bit as nice or nicer than any other remote village we visited in the Philippines. Prisoners are even welcome to bring their wives and children to share their incarceration. If it weren't for the guards with shotguns walking around, we would not have known this was a prison.

The functionality of Iwahig seemed communistic in design. All the labors of the prisoners went to support the institution. Through farming and export of handmade crafts, the colony is financially self-supporting. Prisoners also make craft items on their own time and sell them to purchase items from the colony store.

Our first stop was at a checkpoint with a lowered barrier arm. This was the extent of the security measures. There were no large fences or walls surrounding the colony.

Our next stop was strangely enough the guard's shack at the maximum security section of the prison. Here we acquired a permission form which we needed to have signed by the warden. The maximum security area had high walls and a large bar gate. As we stood just outside the gate, prisoners flocked to see us from all corners of the yard. They stuck hand-made items through the bars trying to get us to buy them. One prisoner attempted to get my interest in a jewelry box which was too large to fit between the narrow bars. In fear of loosing a sale he finally said, "Here I will let you look at it". With that, he reached his had through the bars and opened the latch. As my heart leapt into my mouth, this maximum security prisoner was allowed to open the gate and step out with his wares. The guard at the gate had a shotgun in hand and saw the prisoner, but took little note of the situation. After I regained my composure, I looked at the box, returned it to the prisoner, and he returned to his confinement.

Our next stop was the administration building to get our newly acquired form signed by the warden. As we were entering the building, we met the most colorful character of the day. He was a Filipino male in his early twenties who introduced himself as "Boy Prisoner". He worked in the administrative offices and took it upon himself to show us around. Boy was very friendly, outgoing and interested in us. He was quick to learn all our names in the first introduction. The crime for which he had been incarcerated was murder; he called it "self defense". He has been in Iwahig for ten years, so he must have been twelve or thirteen at the time. Boy told us that he was due to be released in six months and was looking forward to moving to Puerto Princessa and working in an office. We didn't dispute this claim with him but Puerto Princessa was not a Mecca for office jobs and a guard told us he had a life sentence. Boy was being so friendly and helpful, we could not help but entertain the thought that he had some hidden agenda in mind.

We found out what that was when we were preparing to leave. He thought that he had earned a "tip". He asked, "Do you have something for Boy Prisoner?". Apparently he was able to earn quite a bit more money acting as a guide for the visitors than many of the craftsman could selling their wares.

Looking back on the experience, as far as we could tell, he was just being friendly. We got his address and sent him a picture of all of us together.

There wasn't a whole lot to look at in the camp itself. The village square seemed to be the only real source of activity, spare a few people out working in the fields. Low and medium security prisoners roamed about the camp freely. Many were doing nothing and took little notice of us. Others were friendly and simply wanted to say hello. Some opportunity seekers ran and got their handmade craft items to sell to us. We ignored all the peddlers and purchased our wares from the village store.

The store was small with half the stock devoted to living essentials for the inmates and the other half hand-crafted goods for sale to tourists. Everything from woven plastic hats to some of the finest crafted hardwood items were on display. Camagong is the most sought after of the wood crafts. We later learned that deforestation has made the camagong a rarity. Its export and import have been limited by the government in order to ensure its survival. This wood is very dense and a dark brown, almost black in color. Boxes, canes, and pointers were fashioned out of camagong and inlaid with mother of pearl. At the time I didn't fully appreciate the beauty and workmanship which went into some of the more expensive camagong pieces. I wound up purchasing several little bamboo boxes with the word Palawan inlaid in it for P15 each.

We were also amazed to see a line of concealed weapons for sale. A seemingly harmless wooden ruler pulled apart to reveal a Kung Fu steel knife blade. Another harmless looking wooden pointer pulled apart exposing a crude rectangular metal shaft sharpened to a point. This raised the question in our minds: if the prisoners are allowed to make weapons, are they allowed to carry them as well? Sure enough, one of the prisoners overheard this discussion and was quick to pull out the knife that he had made. The blade was four to five inches long and the handle was some type of white plastic which resembled ivory. He had painstakingly carved the handle into a very detailed erect penis. The prisoner was very obviously proud of his work and stuck it in our faces as if to solicit an adverse response. We acted mildly impressed and wandered on. I was just extremely glad a guard with a shotgun was standing nearby. On a side note about that guard, I am not much of a weapons expert, but this guard's gun was unmistakably rusted. I found myself wondering if it was physically capable of performing it's function when needed. I hoped it's intimidation value was enough.

Our next stop on Boy's tour was the medium security section of the prison. The prisoners were confined behind some roughly fashioned wooden enclosure. Here, like in the maximum security where we stumbled into earlier, the inmates flocked to the gates with items for sale. These prisoners were weaving hats and other items out of some form of colorful plastic. I have no idea where they were getting the plastic, but woven into hats, it was rather ugly. This was about the only place in the Philippines we saw plastic used to weave products.

Shortly after our arrival in the medium security area, some minimum security prisoners came up to us with packages of cigarettes for which they wanted P15. We were having some trouble understanding them and since we don't smoke told them "no thank you". Then we figured out that they were wanting us to purchase the cigarettes for the medium security prisoners. Again, we told them "no thank you", and moved on.

Kurt fancies himself a wood craftsman, so after seeing the quality Kamagong woodwork in the village store he asked Boy to show us the wood shop. To our surprise it was a very simple open air building with very few tools. We watched several people crafting wood items and inlaying them with mother of pearl. The prisoners spoke no English here but with Boy and Lani's help, Kurt managed to ask to have a rough piece of kamagong to take home with him. He gave the prisoner P5 for his trouble.

Outside the wood shop Lani noticed a tree which contained a fruit called star apples. We paid a prisoner P5 to climb the tree and pick us some of the fruit. The tree was large and it was quite a climb to get to the fruit, which was located at the very top. I must admit it was a little surprising to see there was any fruit on the tree at all. I would have expected it all to be picked over by the inmates already. My only explanation is that everyone was too lazy to climb the tree. Anyway, the fruit looked much like a large plum. It is referred to as a star apple because when sliced horizontally the seeds form a star. The proper way to eat this thing was by taking it in both hands and ripping it into two halves. The outer skin was not to be eaten, so ideally at this point a spoon would be used to dig out the inner meat. Since we had no utensils on us, our only option was to squish the fruit and suck up the mushy pulp as it came out. This was a very messy but FUN! process and the fruit was sweet and rather good.

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