Life inside the Philippines' prison without walls

Twice the size of Paris, the open-air Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm offers a unique approach to reforming criminals.

Edwin Ymsom has already spent five years in prison for robbery and has another 10 years to go.

Although he is incarcerated, he openly sells cookies and peanuts to children at a swimming pool. Nearby, a few hundred prisoners armed with sharp-edged sickles cut grass.

The Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in the Philippines is one of the world’s largest open-air jails. Instead of concrete walls, the prison is surrounded by a wire fence. A single guard at the entrance gate greets tourists and criminals’ relatives without inspecting them.

The prison and its 3,186 convicts are just 14km away from Puerto Princesa, capital of Palawan province, a top tourist destination near stunning dive sites and a giant underground river system.

Surrounded by a thick coastal mangrove forest and a mountain range, the 26,000-hectare jail - which is more than twice the size of Paris - offers a unique approach to reforming criminals.

“I stabbed a man to death,” recalled 36-year-old inmate Effren Espinosa Jr as he waved a machete. “Here conditions are better than in other prisons, and guards treat us with dignity,” he said before resuming his clearing duties in the garden.

As many as 200 minimum-security inmates are responsible for farming and office-related work, as well as for supervising the tasks of the medium-security inmates. Nearly 1,000 of the latter, who wear blue T-shirts, take care of the rice paddies, coconut plantations, corn fields and vegetable plots scattered across the prison grounds.

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