Opinion

Dancing to the jailhouse rock takes on a whole new meaning…

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It’s absolutely mind-boggling what people can do with a little effort, a lot of perseverance and some good moves ;). At a Cebu provincial prison in the Philippines, a security consultant by the name of Byron Garcia decided to try something innovative. To teach the inmates how to live together rather than to just tolerate each other’s presence in between fights, as well as to keep them busy, to make them exercise as well as make them feel better about themselves, he made them… dance.

Yup, you read that right.

What does a group of around 1’000 prisoners with no prior dance experience dancing together look like? Take a look:

This video had become quite a YouTube success, with over 18 million hits as of October 2008. Byron Garcia didn’t stop at one dance routine, nor just at routines: I have counted over a dozen various routines (some better than others), and these routines have not only made it on the Internet but also have been presented to various personalities and celebrities in the Philippines.

Here are a couple of my favorite performances by the inmates of the Cebu prison. Most of the routines are quite simple; the most striking thing to me is the level of discipline, hard work and cooperation that is needed to perform these routines.

The use of dance as a non violent approach to rehabilitation is quite novel to me, and, after watching a documentary on the subject, it actually makes a lot of sense.

In January 2008, IHT’s Alexandra A. Seno reported that:

In 2004, as a security consultant to the provincial government (his older sister, Gwendolyn Garcia, is governor), he was brought in to address problems at the prison after a series of riots. He recommended that the almost 2,000 prisoners be moved from an ancient stockade, which had been built with a 200-prisoner capacity in mind by the Spanish, whose colonial rule ended in 1898. The prisoners were transferred to a new, larger facility.

Garcia also fired dozens of jail guards for corruption, installed an enhanced security system, broke up gangs, banned guns and the use of cash (opening bank accounts for inmates) and enforced an exercise regime that in the past year evolved into dance classes.

Garcia said that what had been weekly outbreaks of violence have subsided, inmates’ health has improved and recidivism rates are down dramatically.

He only went the YouTube route, he said, because his attempts to draw public attention to these changes were ignored. “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country,” said Garcia, citing one of his favorite passages from the Bible.

Since then, Cebu‘s Internet fame has prompted other Philippine prisons to pay heed. By the end of 2007, eight others had begun adapting some of his methods, including dance. He has yet to visit them, but he says: “Dance is just the icing on the cake.”

Life at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center is no country club. Prisoners sleep on hard pallets more than a dozen to a cell and are held to a strict schedule of work and other activities from dawn to lights-out.

Still, inmates say conditions are better. “It’s really nice here compared to the old prison. No more drugs, drinking, look how big our stomachs are,” said Rodolfo Ruiz, 47, who has served seven years for multiple murder, jokingly sticking out his belly. He said he had kicked the crystal meth habit he developed at the old facility.

Pepe Diokno, 20, a film student at the University of the Philippines who has toured several prisons while making the documentary “Dancing for Discipline,” said the Cebu facility “has the inmates with the biggest smiles.”

And the story doesn’t end here (), because now: spectators are flocking to the live show.

“It was great. I had fun. Two thumbs up,” said Kathleen, a local university student and one of hundreds of people who visit the jail every month to catch the inmates’ grooving in harmony.

From viewing platforms surrounding the exercise ground the audience cheer and dance as if it was a rock concert.

The dance numbers include Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” and a new routine of the Bonnie Tyler song “I Need a Hero” which involves inmates holding portraits of iconic figures such as the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II and Mahatma Ghandi.

“They are so good at dancing all the time,” said Anne Yzerman, a research student from The Netherlands. “I was really impressed.”

At the end of the two hour program, which is held the last Saturday of every month, visitors can have their pictures taken with the prisoners. They can also buy souvenir prison shirts.
Byron Garcia, who oversees the jail and introduced the dance routines last year as a way of improving morale, said the prisoners were enjoying the switch from notoriety to celebrity.

However not all view this experiment with enthusiasm. Byron Garcia’s YouTube page states the following:

There are sick people who think that dancing is a form of cruel punishment! Since when was dancing categorized as punishment? My fellow citizens of the world, CRUEL and VIOLENT forms of punishment are a thing of the past. If we make jails a living hell for the prisoners, then, we might just be sending out devils once they are released and re-integrated to society. To all “non-believers” of humane treatment of prisoners, and, to all “haters” of our NON-VIOLENT APPROACH TO REHABILITATION all I can say is …GET A LIFE!

This rant raises a couple of good questions. First of all, what is the function of a prison, and, on the other hand, what should be the function of a prison? Second of all, while we can impose some things on underage children (dance lessons, for example!), can we do so on adults, even if it’s for their own good, especially when we have to proof that it will help them?

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2 thoughts on “Dancing to the jailhouse rock takes on a whole new meaning…

  1. Now comes the part where I relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your failed and useless lives. But remember, as my plastic surgeon always said: if you gotta go, go with a smile.JackNicholsonJack Nicholson, as The Joker in Batman, 1989

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