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Prison life in Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines: A personal story

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Inmates rest in Filipino prison (Screenshot via YouTube)

Australian author Luke Williams gives a brutally honest account of life in a Filipino prison cell and the circumstances that led to his incarceration.

WHEN PEOPLE ASK ME what I did to end up in a gaol cell in the Philippines, I have to first explain how I had not been very well. How it was a grey day. How there had been a string of grey days without any sun and it had been raining again that day. Dust had turned to grime. Sewer grills spilled out stinking warm water onto streets. Locals were talking of the possibility of a typhoon.

I was on my way to pick up a package of books from a post office a few kilometres up the road from the red light district in Angeles City. I had only three days left in the country before my flight to Brisbane, where I was hoping to be admitted to a psych ward because I had been suicidal for months.

Sickly crooked palm tree out front of disheveled post office. Friendly woman at the counter smiling and asking for 80 pesos for holding the package for six weeks because they hadn’t bothered delivering it. Realising I didn’t have 80 pesos and calling her thief. I remember grabbing my package and walking out and telling the big security guard with the missing front teeth that, in lieu of paying for the package, he could suck on my package. I remember the heavy set-man in the tracksuit joining in the calls for me to stop and return the package to the post office. He kneed me in the back of the spine and I fell to the ground, the heavy-sat man on top of me, folding my hands behind my back, handcuffing me and telling me I was under arrest. He pulled me up off the ground, blood and grime splashed on knees and running down my legs.

I deserved it. I’d been doing that kind of thing for months, years perhaps. Stealing. Yelling. Anti-social behaviour. Getting into fights. Then sadness and guilt after. It was all part of the reason I wanted to suicide — so people could understand I wasn't a bad person, I just lost control sometimes, that I hated myself more than anyone else possibly could.

Inside the station, I screamed at the police officers so loud it burnt the back of my throat. I called them everything I could think of and started kicking them and they punched in the face, and kicked me in the stomach and pushed me onto the ground. When I calmed down they gave me a glass of water and put me in a cell. The cell had no windows and smelt like sewerage.  

So, who came up with the Filipino gaol system?

Someone walking around with a clipboard and a form, nodding and smiling and licking their lips as they went:

  • No food: tick.
  • No leaving the cell at any time: tick.
  • No beds: tick.
  • No pillows: tick.
  • No hot water: tick.
  • No phone call: tick.
  • No access to a lawyer: tick.
  • No turning off that fucking kitchen light: tick.
  • No access to medications: double tick.

There are nearly 190,000 people in 933 gaols in the Philippines. The nation tops the World Prison Brief’s list for the most overcrowded gaols anywhere in the world. Most of the men in the cell had been there for months. They were chunky, tattooed, low-level drug dealers. 

Once you are put into the cell you are not allowed out at any time, not even for a second. The police don’t feed you and there is no fresh water. One young guy told me he hadn’t seen the sky for five months. Like three-quarters of the people in Filipino prisons and everyone else in the cell, he was awaiting trial and had no money for bail. 

They helped me. They played drums on water bottles. They giggled, whistled, sang, played pranks, drew pictures on the wall, tongue kissed their girlfriends through the bars, co-conspired bigger plans to deal bigger amounts of drugs when they were released. They offered me smokes, smiles, a T-shirt to use as a pillow and a pillow-sized piece of cardboard to use as a mattress — which I accepted. 

The benevolent top dog offered me crystal meth and some off-smelling pig liver and chopped hot dog, which I rejected, then accepted under some duress. He asked me why I kept crying. I said nobody knew I was there. It was a weekend. I had not been allowed to call anybody and I did not know how long I would be kept there. He said he had a plan, he said could help me. 

An hour later, the top dog tapped me on the shoulder and said:

“My friend, there is a policeman, he is a very kind man, he will let you out to use a phone, you’ll be okay. Just relax, have fun.”

For the first time in months, I really understood how much I did not want to die. I just wanted to feel joy, stop feeling pain.

Later that night the officer let me use a phone and a computer inside an office. I messaged my Mum who messaged my boyfriend who turned up to the cell. The embassy called. I applied for and got bail. 

After I left, I cannot describe how much I wanted to go back inside because I did not feel it was fair they would all still be in there because they could not afford to pay their way out. I felt this way for months. I still feel so guilty and so sickly about it all. Maybe some are still in there, in that same cell. Still singing. Still laughing. Humans can find ways to endure the most terrible suffering. Perhaps, they are just grateful to be alive. 

Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war has caused the largest number of civilian deaths in southeast Asia since Cambodia's genocide in the 1970s.

I flew back to Brisbane. I stayed at Royal Brisbane Psych ward unit. I was medicated. I meditated. I got a diagnosis — bipolar II. The anti-social behaviours were a symptom of mania. The suicidal plans were part of the depression. I had a new appreciation for our country, a place I never liked very much. I grew a sense of surviving a terminal illness. Days rolled on under wide blue skies. I understand it now, what it feels like — gratitude. 

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This is an edited excerpt from Down and Out in Paradise: East, West, Sex, Death by Luke Williams and published by Echo. Luke Williams is an author and two-time Walkley finalist.

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