The Philippines. A hot, tropical country in Southeast Asia
jammed with one hundred million inhabitants. A country in which six percent of the population
is unemployed. In which the gap between rich and poor could
hardly be bigger. The biggest problem: drugs. Marijuana, crack, meth. Available all over the country. But those who take drugs will sooner or later
end up here: At South Cotabato Jail Highlight Prison There are drug dealers, rapists, and murderers. “I had to kill my nephew. It was self-defense. ” Guilty or not guilty – all the prisoners
are awaiting a hearing. Behind bars. Often for decades. “I can’t do anything but wait. I miss my family so much.” A trial of patience between desperation, heat,
and a power struggle between the guards and those
who are actually in control of the jail. “All I can think about is getting out of
here, escaping.” Surviving in cramped conditions. Without hope of release. In one of the most overcrowded prisons in
the world. The South Cotabato Jail. New prisoners arrive at South Cotabato Jail
every day. Even though it’s already massively overcrowded… This is the first time Ronniel Dumagit [ronneal
dumagit] has seen a jail from the inside… “Why are you here?” “Stabbing.” “What happened?” “It was in a supermarket, with a women.” “Ah, attempted murder.” The charge: attempted murder of a cashier. Ronniel is said to have stabbed her in the
belly. While on drugs. But the 35-year-old Filipino has still not
been convicted. South Cotabato is only a jail – all of the
prisoners here are awaiting a verdict. The question is, if a verdict will ever be
rendered… “He’ll stay here till his trial. We don’t know how long it will be.” Some wait here for months, others for years. Whether guilty or not guilty, murderers or
drug dealers – on the inside, it doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters on the inside is survival. “I’m really nervous. I don’t know what’ll happen now. It’s my
first time.” Ronniel finds out sooner than he’d like
what kind of world awaits him inside the walls. On the inside of one of the most overcrowded
prisons in the world. Welcome to South Cotabato Jail. A jail
that is bursting at the seams. The average temperature is a tropical 35 degrees. About 2,000 prisoners wait out their time
in a space designed for a number only a quarter that size. They live like caged animals. Sweat, heat, no privacy at all, desperation,
and rage – all concentrated in a space that is much too small. In his very first hour in jail, Ronniel will
find out who’s in charge. Who occupies what place on the hierarchy. And what awaits him here in the future… “Everyone should know he’s a newbie. And if he has enemies here, they won’t recognize
him immediately. We’ve all gone through it.” As a new prisoner, Ronniel is at the bottom
of the jail’s hierarchy. He has no rights. His belongings do not remain in his possession
for long. The goal is to break the newbie. He must start from nothing. With nothing in his pocket. He must possess nothing but insecurity and
fear. And no one protects him. (Nochmal Prüfen bitte! ) “I’m miserable. Everyone’s watching me.” These are Ronniel’s last steps under the
watch of the guards. Once he enters the cellblock, responsibility
for the newbie falls to one of his fellow prisoners: the cell leader. From now on, he decides when Ronniel eats,
when he gets to go outside – and where he sleeps. Ronniel’s new home: a 270-square-foot cell
inhabited by 69 inmates. It’s the cell for new arrivals, regardless
of whether they’re drug dealers or murderers. Everyone starts here, in one of the jail’s
fullest and hottest cells. “Get up there. You’re new, so you sleep up there. Go on.” The stuffiest place, at the very top in the
corner. Where the heat accumulates. Where the air consists of sweat and frustration. “Being here is terribly stressful. I’ve never been anywhere like
this before.” Starting now, Ronniel must stay in the cell
for 15 days. He can only go outside when the cell leader
lets him and accompanies him. Ronniel has no say in the matter. Only those who follow the rules survive in
South Cotabato Jail. The biggest problem: the jail is utterly overcrowded. In only two buildings, designed for about
600 inmates, 1,618 prisoners are doing time. About 150 of them are in so-called “punishment
cells.” Cells that are always locked. For dangerous criminals, repeat offenders,
or sick inmates. The oldest are in a separate wing for seniors. Also in a separate wing, apart from the men,
are 400 women. Essential for survival are the jail’s kitchen,
the prayer room, and the visiting area, which is open once a week. The entire compound is patrolled by only five
guards. And their hands are tied. Twenty public servants against about 2,000
inmates – an unfair fight… Rodrigo Baludio [roll the Rs!] has been a
jailer at South Cotabato Jail for 18 years. It is his job to keep the peace. But he must always keep three things in mind:
the danger to his men, corruption, and maintaining a distance between guards and prisoners. (Nochmal auf Dopplungen prüfen bitte) “I don’t let the guards enter the compound. Their contact with
the prisoners should be minimal. Some of the inmates could develop a personal
relationship with them, no matter what crime they’ve committed. And that can lead to other problems.” That means: one of the only jobs left is to
monitor the outer walls. The guards must rely above all on security
cameras. And: on the hierarchy within the prison walls. Because the jail is ruled from within. For Baludio, that’s a mental strain. “I’m always under pressure. Every time my phone rings I get
goosebumps. I know that a call means problems, that something
has happened inside and I have to solve the problem as fast as possible.” Fights, escape attempts, hunger strikes. Baludio has seen it all. But he can’t change the situation in the
jail. His people go inside the walls only twice
a day: to do a head count. It’s 4 p.m. About 2,000 prisoners all in one space – and
one guard to count them. The guard seems rather like a minion of those
who are actually in control here. If Ronniel breaks the law on the outside,
he ends up in jail. Inside – he pays with his life. The one with the power to decide is known
as the President, el Presidente. He is the boss in South Cotabato Jail. “We have rules here. And you will follow them. Got it? “Yes, sir.” “Respect me and do what the marshals and
I tell you. Then
you’ll be fine.” The hierarchy is clear. On top: the President and his helpers, the
so-called marshals, armed with clubs. At the bottom: newbies like Ronniel. Otherwise, the only way to power is money. Prisoners with money can buy what they need
to survive. Cigarettes, food from the jail’s kiosk – and
above all: fresh water. Those who can’t afford it have to drink
groundwater. On the tropical Philippines, with an average
temperature of 35 degrees, this is a dangerous proposition. It’s easy to catch diseases like tuberculosis
– and whoever gets sick gets locked away in total isolation. Due to fear of epidemics. A fear that one man in the jail doesn’t
have: Glecerio de Pedro [gleserio de pedro, roll the Rs!]. In the jail he is known as: El Presidente. “First: people have to respect me, then
I treat them well. If
they listen to me and follow the rules, then I help them with their problems.” Glecerio de Pedro has been in South Cotabato
Jail for 13 years. In this time, he has become the most powerful
man in the jail. The reason: his wealthy family. And wealth is both power and a status symbol. “I’m here for murdering my nephew. We were having an
argument over property, and the whole family thought I was the problem. They wanted me to die real soon so that they
could get the land. So I saved my own life. I had to kill my nephew. It was self-defense.” No verdict has yet been returned. And the President is waiting. But he is waiting with privileges that no
one else has. He uses his status to operate a lucrative
barter operation. He gives prisoners money, and in return they
give him televisions, cell phones, a custom-built bed – things that are technically prohibited. No one messes with the President and his marshals. Even the guards leave the most important job
to the marshals: locking down the cells. It’s 5 p.m., and about 2,000 prisoners have
to be put back behind bars. Those who don’t obey – feel the whack
of the club. Or the power of the President. A system that seems to work. Based on respect – and fear. “I’m the over-all-checker and do the prep
work for the guards. The prisoners trust and respect me. So do the guards. The guards rely on the hierarchy that rules
the jail. There’d be no way to keep the mass of prisoners
under control otherwise. One level below the marshals on the hierarchy
are the cell leaders. They count the prisoners again. No one can go missing. The newbie is starting to understand how the
prison works. The guards must do only one small job: lock
the cell doors – and leave the jail. The prisoners spend the next 12 hours behind
bars. A struggle for survival begins, a struggle
for space, for air to breathe. There is no access to food or water. The prisoners must persevere, in one of the
most overcrowded jails in the world. A prison built for 600 inmates. At the moment, three times that number are
behind bars here. About 70 people occupying about 300 square
feet. The average temperature is a tropical, humid
95 degrees Fahrenheit. Hardly anyone can sleep. They just have to wait it out. To distract themselves. To get through another night, to survive… For the newbie, an extreme situation. It’s Ronniel’s first night behind bars. “It’s unbelievably hot. I can’t breath. I feel claustrophobic. I
don’t know how I’ll make it. The 35-year-old has no choice. He must persevere. If only for his four children and his wife,
who are waiting for him on the outside. Night falls. Darkness settles over the jail. All the prisoners are behind bars. Except for one group of people – that is
allowed to move around at night. The privileged few. El Presidente and his entourage… In their eyes, this class distinction is totally
normal. “Everyone is treated equally here. Everyone but me, that is. I
have a special status, but all others are under my
supervision and are equal. Equality – clearly, everyone defines it
differently. One thing is certain: those who get on the
President’s good side escape the overcrowding. “When I got here in 2002, I wanted people
to trust me. So I followed the rules, worked hard to earn
the trust of the guards and the President. It wasn’t easy. I had to work hard to get their attention. An unfair game – one that almost two thousand
prisoners can only sit and watch. But how did the jail get so inhumanly overcrowded
in the first place? The reason is President Duterte’s war on
drugs in the Philippines. With a per capita income of less then one
US dollar a day, the Philippines is one of the ten poorest countries in the world. Drug dealing – and the consumption of methamphetamines
are often the only way to earn money illegally and thus to survive. Duterte wants to clean the country up – in
a drastic way. Over a period of six months, he had 4,000
drug dealers murdered in broad daylight. The country has become a police state. Out of simple fear of being killed, in 2017
about one million drug dealers turned themselves in to the police. And every day the president throws hundreds
of people behind bars. The prisons are bursting at the seams, but
the Filipino justice system is not prepared in the least to deal with so many people. With over 700,000 pending trials and only
1,600 lawyers, a verdict can take years. Years in which the prisoners in South Cotabato
Jail must wait in suspense. Ronniel has now made it through at least one
night… “The night was hot and long. I didn’t really sleep at all. I always thought of my family. That they’re out there all alone, without
me.” It’s the following morning. Five a.m. As a newbie, Ronniel is not yet allowed outside
with the others. He has to wait – and returns in his thoughts
to his wife and child. He’s not the only one with such thoughts
here. Many are plagued by them. Including Janel Berjes [janell berhess]. The 35-year-old has been imprisoned for five
years – for running a con. He is accused of embezzlement and defrauding
customers. He acted out of necessity. To help his family scrape by. “So much has happened in my life. And it’s always very
sad, because we have three children waiting for me. “It’s a song for my son.” For Janel, it’s above all the desperation,
the waiting, that makes jail so hard. Meanwhile he has arrived at the middle of
the hierarchy. That means: he is allowed to cook and prepare
food with others that they bought themselves. Everything is done under the watchful eye
of the marshals, of course – and of the President. Still: knives and sharp objects are allowed. No one rations the portions. But all this requires money: for chicken,
fish, or rice. Or generous visitors. That’s why Janel pools together with a few
of his fellow prisoners. As they say: a problem shared is a problem
halved. “Some buy noodles, others vegetables, other
oil. It’s very
difficult to survive on your own here. You’re often sad, lonely, and just sit in
your cell. You eat the food they ration out. And without friends you’ve got no one to
talk to about your problems, about the waiting and the abiding hope for freedom. You’d go crazy. Psychologically, the situation is unbelievably
difficult.” And no one can escape from this situation. Above all the newbie. Ronniel is under constant observation. He’s not prohibited from cooking his own
food. But he has to earn the privilege first. With: cleaning duty. At least that lets him spend some time outside. Can he enjoy some fresh air? In jail? No chance. “It stinks. Disgusting.” “At least I’m outside and can move around,
even if the work’s degrading.” Ronniel knows: he can’t sink any lower. He has to follow the rules. For he’s never alone in here. Everyone sees him. Sees every misstep. And every misstep is punished with food deprivation. “Come on, get up. Get in line.” Nine a.m. Mealtime is the high-point of the
day for newbies and the low-status prisoners. A bowl of rice with vegetables. The next one won’t come for seven hours. And they eat – in the dark cells of South
Cotabato Jail. A prison that is not only drastically overcrowded. It is also overshadowed by a hopelessness
that affects everyone, no matter where they stand on the hierarchy. Regardless of whether they can move freely,
play basketball, or do something else. It’s all just a distraction. A distraction from the waiting, from the constant
hope and disappointment. No one here has been convicted. All are awaiting a verdict. Hearings do take place every month, and with
them lingers the hope that one’s own turn will come. One’s own turn to be free. But waiting for a trial and a verdict can
last years, sometimes decades – if it ever comes to a trial. Those here the longest have been waiting for
over 15 years… A psychological strain… that not everyone
can withstand. In five years, Janel has already been summoned
to a hearing 23 times – and every time it’s been postponed. Every time the court was overcrowded. He wishes he could turn back time. Give back the money he stole. The worst part about it: his wife is only
a few meters away from him, also behind bars – in the wing for women. As an accessory to his fraud. “It’s all my fault, my mistake. It hurts every day to know that
my wife is behind bars for my mistake. We’re both imprisoned. And what hurts even more is the thought of
my children. My wife can’t see them and can’t take
care of them. Our children are alone when they have problems. We can’t help them. We can’t contact them, can’t even give
them moral support. I can’t do anything but wait. I miss my family so much… I can’t take it anymore. Janel and his wife are separated by less than
1,000 feet. Lovelyn Berjes is also behind bars in South
Cotabato Jail. The reason: she is accused of having known
about her husband’s fraud. They are allowed to see each other once a
week. But they hardly ever see their children. They live too far away, are poor, and can’t
afford the trip to the jail. The other women are in a situation similar
to Lovelyn. Most are in jail for abusing drugs and prostitution. Because of the fast money and the hope of
somehow escaping poverty. But that desperation has driven them into
an even deeper futility. Into a hopeless waiting. A jail in which desperation, frustration,
and the struggle for survival live side by side in the smallest space possible. Up to one hundred prisoners at a time are
stuffed into cells the size of shoeboxes. Massive overcrowding and nerve-racking waiting
are the daily fare. Privacy? No chance. And the hope of being released is zero. That’s why South Cotabato Jail is one of
the toughest prisons in the world. It is a massive undertaking for the guards:
a huge mass of people that can barely be managed, that rules itself. Rodrigo Baludio uses the last power play at
his disposal. Time for a so-called “Greyhound” – a
surprise inspection of the cells. “There’s nothing to see here. Go away from the fence. And
you all, get out here. Go on, get up, get out. Faster. Hurry up. About once a month, the cells and their inmates
are inspected by six guards each. They know that they can’t stop the smuggling
of contraband – but they can at least minimize it. Strictly forbidden are above all guns and
knives. Everything that is dangerous or even lethal. Baludio is not surprised to find something
right away. And now comes the hardest part of the job. “We confiscate everything that’s not allowed
in the cells and try to find out who it belongs to. This person will be punished. The problem is finding the owner, as no one
admits it.” All the same, Baludio’s team gives its best
effort. Every corner of the cell is searched. No matter how disgusting it is. “It stinks in here like old urine. But it’s my job. This is part of
the job. Except for visiting days, the prisoners are
forbidden to have contact with the outside world… “A cell phone…” “If we find out who the phone belongs to,
he won’t be allowed to have any more visitors and will
be put in solitary confinement.” “I found another one. A smartphone. With no password.” The guards are in luck – if they find the
owner, they’ll finally have the upper hand and can set an example by punishing him severely. And thus win some respect. “I’m not sure, but I think he’s in this
cell. “We’ll check.” Baludio definitely wants to identify the prisoner. He knows that the searches are just a drop
in the bucket. That they have no hope of winning the struggle. There are too few of them to keep all the
cells in check. But every find and every punishment means
a tiny bit more authority in one of the toughest prisons in the world. Authority that Ronniel also feels. He quickly learns whom he has to respect. Even the one hour a day he gets to spend outside
is not for free. “Why don’t you move over? Let him sit down.” “More.” Everything costs money. Even air to breathe. Ronniel is fleeced for every cent. There’s a logic to it. He shouldn’t have anything anymore. Except respect for others. And fear. “I can’t take it here. I can’t stand all the people. Inside I can’t
breathe, and outside… I’m not myself. And all this because I got in a fight with
a cashier…” Ronniel says that he got in a fight over money
with a cashier while on drugs. And her boyfriend pulled a knife – Ronniel
had to defend himself. “I wish it hadn’t happened. I’d never react that way again in
the future. I have a family, and whenever I think of them
I wonder why I defended myself. Why I didn’t just let myself get killed. Because I have no idea how to survive in here.” Survival. That’s the goal of every one of the inmates
in one of the world’s most overcrowded prisons. Some live a life of oppression, while others
are the rulers of the jail. Still, today is the one day a week everyone
waits for. That has great meaning for everyone. Because everyone needs: visiting day. “Sir, there are two new visitors here.” Every Saturday, family and friends can visit
the prisoners for three hours. The government calls visiting day an accommodation
in return for how long prisoners have to wait for a trial. Officially, the visitors can bring anything
they want as long as it’s not dangerous: food, money, clothing. And as much of it as they want. For the guards, it’s the most difficult
and stressful day of the week. Secretly they know they can’t check everything. But they at least try to find contraband:
knives, guns, cell phones – anything lethal or that provides contact to the outside world
has to stay outside. “We try not to miss anything, but certain
situations make it easy to smuggle things in. These days are always so hectic. None of us is perfect, of course, but we do
our best. That’s why it’s not only objects that
get searched. Each visitor is also thoroughly frisked. “Give me the fish and go in the booth.” Anyone caught trying to smuggle something
in is put on a list. The next time it happens, the person loses
permission to visit. Lucy and Sira visit their father in prison
every Saturday. He has been in the overcrowded jail for six
months on a charge of attempted murder. As with everyone, it’s unclear what really
happened. How long he’ll be here. And if he’ll ever get out again at all. But one thing is certain: his family needs
him – and he needs his family. “I feel my family’s love, even though
I’m inside here. They know I’m a victim. They stand by me. I’m happy they visit me every week. “I need my husband. I’m all alone with the kids. I hope he gets justice soon. It’s a brief moment of happiness – but
still, it’s a positive emotion behind bars. Joy, but under supervision. The supervision of the marshals – and of
the President, of course. Are they maintaining order, or do they want
to see what’s changing hands…? At least today they’re giving their inferiors
a small sense of freedom… “Look what I brought, Dad!” In the Philippines, around 70 percent of children
grow up without both parents. Lack of money drives fathers to work far from
home in big cities, or they resort to crime. And criminals land in the endless holding
pattern of the country’s jails, like South Cotabato Jail. Here, the wish for freedom is and remains
for most prisoners just that: a wish. Visitors, gifts, and above all money to buy
everything behind bars they need to survive. Many prisoners can only stand by and watch. Visiting day shows them what they don’t
have. Some are resigned to their fate, but Romeo
Gomez tries to be creative. He carves and builds little houses – which
he sells on visiting day to earn at least a little money. He himself never has visitors. Not one single person has visited him in 15
years. “It’s because of my case. It all began when I developed a
good relationship with my niece. We were very close, and the family was happy
that I took care of her. Until… until this unexpected thing happened… The family immediately cast me out. They said: now you’re on your own. We don’t care what happens to you. Romeo Gomez has been in jail for 15 years
for raping his 12-year-old niece. He hasn’t been convicted by a court – but
his family has condemned him. Even inside the walls of the jail, no one
wants anything to do with him. He lives in the somewhat more spacious wing
for seniors, and he survives only on the daily food rations – and begging. “It’s a daily struggle. No one comes and brings me toothpaste or soap. I can’t count on anyone. So I go around everyday and ask the others
for things. Sometimes I also sell my food ration to get
some money. No one in the jail sympathizes with Romeo
Gomez. The case of Lovelyn Berjes, however, who was
only an accomplice but is being punished like drug dealers, murderers, and rapists, seems
unfair. Pointless. Being separated from her children breaks her
heart. But at least she gets to see her husband on
visiting day. “I’m nervous before every meeting. I’m always happy to see
him. But above all I hope each time that our children
will come visit us. It would be a nice surprise. Sadly, it happens far too seldom.” It is hope that helps Lovelyn persevere behind
bars. The
hope of one day seeing her children again. The meetings with her husband Janel are the
high-point of the week – and yet it is always an inner struggle to forgive him, to not blame
him for her situation. “Thanks for cooking.” “You’re welcome.” “Let us pray.” “Dear Lord, we thank you for this food. Thank you for
protecting us in this situation, for always being there for us. We ask you to keep giving us strength. Take care of our children, our family. Protect them and us. Thank you for giving us so much strength. Amen.” It’s bizarre, what happens behind bars here. But sometimes surprises happen, even in jail… “My mother-in-law.” “I’m so happy. If only my wish came true, and such things
happened every day. I want so badly to talk to them every day,
to be in contact with the outside world, to see my children. But seeing my in-laws is also wonderful. I’m so thankful and happy.” But still: it is a short moment of happiness. If and when Lovelyn and Janel will ever be
released, if they will ever be allowed to go home again – no one knows. None of the 1,618 prisoners. All are waiting for a hearing. Officially, the marshal has a court appearance
next month. But will it take place? The President has already given up hope. He doesn’t even try anymore to get a hearing. Still, his powerful status gives him a good
life, a life that Romeo Gomez will never lead. He will probably always be alone. Without hope of release. And Ronniel Dumagit – the newbie? He has to accept that from now on South Cotabato
Jail is his new home. Ronniel has good prospects for a hearing soon. But if it will actually happen – and if
it will result in a verdict, is unclear. “In the last few days, I’ve tried to fit
in. But it seems like it only
gets harder and harder every day. I never would have imagined a life like this…” It is above all the uncertainty that scares
him so much. A hopeless situation – that puts dangerous
thoughts in his head… “I think a lot about how to get out of here. I don’t even think
about my family anymore. There’s just one thought in my head: escape. Getting out of here. As fast as possible. I wish I could just escape from this whole
situation.” The 35-year-old Filipino doesn’t want to
accept what lies ahead. The hardest period in his life is only just
beginning. A period in which he’s all on his own. A life behind bars. In one of the toughest prisons in the world. South Cotabato Jail.