Palawan’s Prison Without Walls Is Built on Respect

In Iwahig, Palawan, many men wearing brown shirts tend to their crops on hectares and hectares of land. A few more people, all dressed in brown, go along the dirt road carrying their most recent creations: a large number of keychains, little kubo-shaped ornaments, and bamboo scratch sticks. It appears to be a typical day in the rural area, which is surrounded by a mountain range, fields, and mangrove trees on the shore. But nothing about the setup is typical. The Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm is a “prison without walls” where these men in brown shirts, who are legally referred to as “persons deprived of liberty,” are currently serving their sentences. The Penal Farm is merely a small fraction of the size of most jails, which have heavy walls, barbed wire, and armed guards.

“They are trusted that they will not leave. But when we tell this story to other countries, they are really shocked,” Public Information Officer Levi T. Evangelista tells about the prisoners roaming freely in the open-air facility.

History of the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm

According to Chester L. Hunt’s 1961 article in the Philippine Sociological Review, “Back in 1904, 61 prisoners from Manila’s old Bilibid prison under the direction of R.J. Shields, an American foreman, began the construction of the Iwahig Penal Colony.” Governor Luke Wright, the Philippines’ Governor-General from 1904 to 1905 and later Secretary of War from 1908 to 1909, had given the go-ahead. The Iwahig Penal Colony’s first superintendent was Lieutenant George Wolfe. It is fewer than 22 kilometers from Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan.

The Colony’s founding idea was that men could be best educated for freedom in an atmosphere that came as close to a free community as possible, according to Hunt’s article.

Newly arrived convicts, middle class residents of the Home Zone with their families, and the top class residents of the Free Zone with their own plot of land to cultivate comprised the initial set-three up’s classes of inmates.

Act No. 1723, approved in 1907 by the Philippine Commission of the U.S. government, designated the settlement as a correctional facility.

President Ramon Magsaysay issued Proclamation No. 97 in November 1954 to distribute land parcels in the Inagawan Sub-Colony of the Iwahig Penal Colony to “qualified and deserving colonists (prisoner) and released colonists.” In 1959, under President Carlos P. Garcia’s administration, the prisoners of Iwahig were divided into two groups: the settlers, who are prisoners given land to cultivate with; and the released colonists.

A Prison Built on Trust, Respect, and Reformation

“We have a community where they can be with their families. They are prisoners but their families are with them. Their wives, earn a living, take care of animals. Your system is really good,” Evangelista explains about the current situation at the colony, which now has 28,000 hectares of land.

Four initiatives that are aimed at PDL reform and rehabilitation make up The Penal Farm. They have a working infirmary, a doctor on site, and a dentist, which institutionalizes their health and wellbeing. PDLs are also transported to the local hospital, whose expenses are covered by the government, in cases of medical emergency. PDLs receive regular catered meals as well as rationed supply of canned goods and rice.

PDLs can participate in sports and leisure activities, such as playing basketball or volleyball alongside staff members. Welding, carpentry, and livelihood programs are among the skills and training that the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority offers. The most crucial thing, though, is moral and spiritual instruction, according to Evangelista.

“They themselves are the ones who lead their religious journey. That is the important thing in everything that changes a person.”

While Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm has a capacity of 5,000 PDLs, its current population is only 2,700 PDLs.

“We haven’t been sent for a long time, more people are freeing,” Evangelista says. Processing of PDLs to transfer from the New Bilibid Prison takes a long time, according to him.

Several PDLs in white shirts were lined up at their social hall when I visited Iwahig in July, indicating that they were already calculating their Good Conduct Time Allowance. Inmates have the opportunity to be released under this system if they behave well and participate in their reformation programs. With 322 releases previously noted from January and 60 releases in July, they aim to release 500 PDLs overall by December.

Evangelista, who relocated to Iwahig from Manila 25 years ago, even claims that he feels safer at the Penal Farm living with criminals than he does in the city.

“Here we care about each other. In Manila, your neighbor, something bad happens that you don’t know about. Or when you walk outside, you don’t know if you’ll be able to come back. The community here is different.”

And even with a staff of 250, they have no problem handling the thousands of inmates within the hectares of land.

"Even though we are outnumbered, we can handle them because they are kind. There is only one solution, we just treat them as human beings. Just respect."

Puerto Princesa City is only about 20 kilometers from Iwawig Prison and Penal Farm. CML Travel & Tours Palawan offers city tours that include a stop at the Iwahig Prison.


By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter

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