DISTURBING. Tragic. Alarming. Subhuman.

These are the words that pepper Raymund E. Narag’s book that tells of life at the Quezon City Jail.

Himself a former detainee in the same jail for almost seven years, Narag has used his intimate knowledge of the country’s correctional system to produce a scholarly examination of the conditions of inmates and officers at the Quezon City Jail, the country’s second biggest.

The book, Freedom and Death Inside the Jail, Narag says, “is a celebration of freedom.”

It is at once an anthropological snap of the Quezon City Jail and its 3,200 detainees, a condemnation of its harsh living conditions, and a study of what can be done to redeem the basic rights of those living in it. The voices are those of the prisoners themselves.

With help from the Supreme Court and the UN Development Programme, the 208-page book was published last year. Narag has recently begun disseminating its online version. (Click here for a pdf copy.)

Freedom and Death wants one thing: “to tell the world of the pains and dreams of the individuals behind bars.”

Using what social researchers call Participatory Research Approach (PRA) methods, Narag sought out the stories of the inmates, their jail officers, and the visitors and volunteers who frequent the detention center. From those stories, and his own, Narag wove together a graphic illustration of how, in Quezon City Jail — acutely overcrowded, disease-ridden, with hardly any hope of its inmates being reformed — life becomes an everyday test of one’s resilience, if not faith.

In 1994, Narag, then 20, was accused of having taken part in a violent attack on members of a rival fraternity at the University of the Philippines. That brawl resulted in the death of a young man. With eleven others, Narag was charged with murder, two counts of frustrated murder and three counts of attempted murder. While undergoing trial, he spent, by his count, six years, nine months, and four days in the city jail.

As soon as he was acquitted and walked out of the jail in February 2002, he went right back to start his participatory research which, in all, took him seven months.

“This is the first book that is written about Philippine prison life,” Narag tells the PCIJ in an e-mail from Michigan, where he is studying for a master’s degree in criminal justice under a Fulbright scholarship. “This is the first time that structures and practices (in the jail) are discussed. It explains how and why these structures and practices thrive and what its implications are on jail and prison management.”

There was clearly no better way, he says, to conduct a study of the jail than from the viewpoints of those who live inside it. “The PRA method is most appropriate because it gives the voice to the inmates. Using a combination of ethnographic tools, I was able to document the inmates’ perspectives.”

He engaged them in interviews, focus group discussions, and they told their own stories using tools like map- and chart-making, and illustrations.

Narag says the book is “revolutionary, in a sense that it throws away the common knowledge accepted by our criminology schools — which uncritically accepts foreign prison literature to be the same with Philippine realities. It is also revolutionary in a sense that a former inmate took the courage to expose what he knew about prison life.”

Subhuman conditions

To begin with, Narag says in his book, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), which has jurisdiction over all the country’s jails, has consistently suffered from a “tragically insufficient” budget. The allocation for each inmate is a measly P35 for each day.

At the Quezon City Jail, the impact of this severe lack of funds is very clear, writes Narag. The facilities are so cramped, that a cell that is designed for 20 inmates houses around 200 of them at any given time.

The inmates use every inch of space they can for sleeping; many of them end up sleeping while squatting on the floor or standing against the wall.

And that is only one in their litany of worries.

Meals consist mostly of a serving of poor quality rice and tuyo. Sometimes they might get some other viand, but these are usually not cooked properly and hygienically, and are not served on time. Many inmates described the rations as “fit for pigs.”

The cells do not have proper ventilation. There is hardly any area where they can catch the sun. There are frequent electricity blackouts and water shortages. A toilet is shared by about a hundred, and it is no longer surprising, writes Narag, to see toilet bowls overflowing with human waste.

Poor health conditions

And precisely because of such poor living conditions, Narag writes, the inmates become prone to contagious diseases.

It is common for inmates to suffer from rashes and boils, cough and colds. Many of them also develop some sort of mental disorder in the course of their detention.

The jail’s health services are unable to cope with the pervasiveness of illnesses. Each inmate is alloted only around P100 in budget for medicines. To maximize the use of medicines, health staff prioritize those inmates whose illnesses are more severe. For instance, if the medication should, by standard, be taken for 21 days, the inmate will only be given the medicine for seven days. The medical personnel will then tell the sick inmate, go have water therapy, and pray that your condition does not worsen.

Each month, Narag reports, quoting the jail’s health personnel, anywhere from two to five inmates die; the most common cause is illness due to high blood pressure.

Alternative structures

Narag quotes an African-American inmate who was among the participants in his participatory research: “If these conditions existed in a Western country, there would already by massive restlessness among the inmates.”

Why then, has the Quezon City Jail remained in operation, insulated from such chaos?

Narag theorizes, that in the absence of the components of an ideal, reformative penal system, the Quezon City Jail has not collapsed because inmates have learned to cope with the situation and have, by themselves, put up alternative structures to help them address their concerns.

Thus, to each of the jail’s basic problems, the inmates themselves have an answer:

  • Inadequate personnel: Panunungkulan system. Selected inmates are given authority over the others.
  • Budget constraints: Very Important Preso system. Affluent inmates are made to share in the operational expenses of the jail.
  • Inadequate programs: Pangkat system. Gives the inmates a sense of identity inside the jail. They resent the term, “gang,” which connotes violence. Instead they refer to their alliances as pangkat, which, to them connotes “brotherhood, friendship, protection.”
  • Lack of conflict mediation: Batas ng Kulungan. An alternative conflict and grievance mediation mechanism where the inmates themselves conduct trials to hear about wrongdoing, and exact punishments as well.

“These systems,” writes Narag, “while originally meant as a support system, have become the norm in the Quezon City Jail.”

A jail “subculture” thus emerges and, eventually, predominates. “They have their own government, their own justice system, and they operate a black market to finance their expenses and the management’s projects.”

While these alternative mechanisms have helped alleviate the conditions of the inmates, Narag narrates, the flip side is that they have also encouraged corruption, abuse, and manipulation among those who appropriate more power over the rest.

Equally important, the subculture “compromises” the objectives of jail management: to reform inmates and professionalize the jail service.


The inmates, jail officers, visitors and volunteers who participated in Narag’s study have listed the following recommendations:

  • Creation of a new Quezon City Jail that has adequate facilities for reformation programs;
  • Provision of basic necessities for inmates, better compensation for jail officers, additional jail personnel;
  • Empowerment of the BJMP director to give Good Conduct Time Allowance to deserving inmates;
  • Review of the BJMP Manual to find a way to incorporate the principles of pangkat, patakaran, panunungkulan, and financial schemes which were developed by inmates; and
  • Inclusion of activities being conducted by volunteers, the business community, and visitors in the Jail’s programs.

The objective must be, Narag concludes, that the penal system become truly reformative. “Clearly, there is something wrong with the country’s penal system. Inmates, instead of undergoing a reformation program, are trapped in a living hell.”

3 Responses to The Quezon City Jail in the eyes of its prisoners



August 3rd, 2006 at 10:11 pm

The constitution guarantees that no one shall be subject to cruel and unusual punishment, and here in this instance, repeated hundreds all over the country, they are metted such punishments even before they are guilty of any crime. And nobody is doing anything about it. Not the Supreme Court, not the congress and not the President.


Ambuot Saimo

August 4th, 2006 at 3:53 am

But from my own obeservations, Quezon City Jail inmates are bit lucky than their Manila’s City Jail’s counterparts. That jail at the back of Central Market area is worser condition-wise. I have been to both jails not as an inmate but part of our penology studies and obverved first-hand the inmates’ conditions. Although we usually go there on an “scheduled visit”, giving the authorities time to apply “make-over”, yet the real situation is apparent and no amount of make-up can hide the real truth. Overcrowding, sanitation, and health issues are the main problems not to mention a need for little privacy because both inmates (convicted) and prisoners (still on trial) are housed together.

Believe it or not, but during our tour to Manila City Jail there were conjugal visits (it occurs everyday according to the inmates) and the couples have to wait for their turns to go inside a makeshift of hanging manila papers right in front of so many inmates chanting or singing together to cover the couples’ noise. I presume same conditions also persist in other Metro Manila jails.

I think the best solution to address the problem is for Congress to pass a special law that will establish an independent or Integrated Jail System for convicted prisoners sentenced to a year or less imprisonment in the Metro Manila area only to be known say, as Metro Manila Jail Authority (MMJA) with annual budget allocation and separate personnel or in the alternative have a private company run it. The facility can be built even outside of Metro Manila where inmates can spend time doing productive choirs such as gardening or the like similar to Camp Sampaguita.

Metro Manila cities or municipal jails should only for those prisoners awaiting trials in their respective jurisdictions. Upon conviction and sentencing to a qualifying period, the inmate will be transferred to MMJA.


Ambuot Saimo

August 4th, 2006 at 5:25 am

I think I made a booh booh here. My suggestion about integrated metro manila jail is already on the Afterword of the book as recommendation to be known as Intergrated Reformatory Center (IRC).

(but anyway it’s an honest suggestion and I admit I did not read the 200 pages before posting)

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