Bernie Ledesma, 2008

Prisoners of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre dance the Rico Mambo. Photo Credit: Bernie Ledesma, 2008

UPDATE 10.05.12: They just did Gangham Sytle

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My general endeavour with Prison Photography is to ask readers to assess the visual culture surrounding prisons and prison populations more critically. The videos and photos in which prisoners present themselves beyond all stereotypes are important. The back story is revelatory too.

The routines are the result of a new approach to rehabilitation in Philippine prisons (8 facilities at last count) beginning at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC). The program was initiated by Byron Garcia the brother of Cebu Governor (Warden) Gwendolyn Garcia. Ms. Garcia was the first female warden at Cebu, which leaves me wondering if the novel dance program is the result of progressive governorship or just an accident of uncomplicated nepotism.

Byron Garcia introduced an exercise program where the prisoners marched in unison, starting out with marching to the beat of a drum, but moved on to dancing to pop music; he began with one of his favourite songs,  Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) by Pink Floyd. Early on, Garcia selected camp hits In The Navy and Y.M.C.A. by The Village People for the program.

All of this is well known to webnerds who follow the biggest viral videos. Thriller has had over 50 million views.

The list continues – MC Hammer’s Can’t Touch This, Laura Brannigan’s Gloria, Bonnie Tyler’s I Need a Hero, Van Halen’s Jump, and Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. The dancing inmates of CPDRC are self-proclaimed “World Entertainers” now and have been featured on pretty much every major global news source. Here’s the BBC’s article.

The routines are endearing to the point that one’s will to know the perhaps-less-than-shiny-happy-reality behind the dancing program is shoved to the back of the mind.

Predictably, as with all things related to penology it is not quite as simple as clapping inmates dancing together, forgetting their rivalries and jigging toward reform.

The dance program is compulsory. “The British Channel 4 Documentary Murderers on the Dancefloor broadcast in January 2008 portrayed life in the prison. The program showed various inmates praising Byron Garcia, the founder of the initiative – many of whom had tattoos praising Mr Garcia. However, it also featured an anonymous ex-inmate who claimed Mr Garcia employs certain prisoners to beat prisoners who refuse to dance. Garcia was filmed in the documentary holding an American M4 Carbine, saying, “This is an M16 M4 rifle, and it can make people dance”, before aiming the gun at the cameraman. This statement was acknowledged as a joke by the narrator. His Youtube account states any accusation that any form of abuse goes on as part of the program is false, and the program serves the purpose of reforming the inmates.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre form a cross shape. Photo Credit Bernie Ledesma, 2008

Prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre form a cross shape. Photo Credit Bernie Ledesma, 2008

Garcia maintains that prisoners dance in honour of Peace Advocates, their Catholic Archbishop and against dissenters of the church. I find it hard to believe that all 1,500+ prisoners dance to voice the exact same political or religious opinion. There is certainly coercion at work here, but I think it is that of forced empty comment than of physical torture for those who abstain.

The show is put on monthly and the gantry around the yard is full of fans; likely family and friends but also genuine admirers. I heard of one spectator’s description of goose-bumps each time she watches a new routine. I can’t go that far but I must admit that the exercise, diversion, surface camaraderie and sincere adulation the prisoners enjoy must be extremely positive. It is worth noting that male and female inmates dance together. Could you really expect to see co-ed dance therapy in any US prison?


Read Marco Bohr’s The Story Behind the Dancing Inmates for a 2011 critique of CEBU and some images of the collapse of the shocking regime prior to Garcia’s arrival.

For the best still photography of CPDRC inmates in action go to Bernie Ledesma’s Flickr Set or his JPG Magazine “Jailhouse Rock” Feature.


All of this, while focusing on the policies of progressive prison authorities distracts us from the ongoing heinous conditions in Philippine prisons, the detention of children alongside dangerous adults and the ongoing abuse of those minors.