“You can help people change by restoring their dignity,” said Iwahig prison director.
The Iwahig Penal Colony in Palawan, Philippines is an active prison where 2,000 criminals who are serving time move freely about and around this fenceless and barrier-less correctional facility, without any intentions of escaping. Iwahig penal colony is in fact the biggest minimum-security prison in the world.
Not that they enjoy being detained, but the colony is surrounded by mountains that are known to be infested with killer malaria mosquitoes.
There’s no point escaping. Plus, prisoners are given vocational activities of their choice from which they can earn an income. While, if they so wish, they are allowed to bring their families to stay with them here in the colony during their time of sentence. Therefore, along with family members, Iwahig has about 4,000 residents.
This unparalleled prison system seems to work since there had not been any attempts to escape. All the more so when prisoners are released as productive to become contributive citizens to society. However, many of them have decided to remain and start a new life here in Palawan after serving their time.
Amazingly, Iwahig prison is a popular tourist destination in Philippines. Not only for its historical significance but availability of unique and cheap source of souvenir items from hand-carved wood craft that has eventually turned into popular export items, iconic of Philippines. One of the most popular souvenir items amongst tourists of Iwahig prison is animal keychains made from recycled plastic cups. They also sell bracelets, trinkets and arnis (wooden weapons similar to the clubs used by English policemen).
In fact the prisoners themselves are the factors that draw in visitors by virtue of their amazing personality. Although this is the safest prison in the country, it is still a prison and the inmates are still convicted criminals. Tourists still hesitate walking inside the colony. It’s not unusual to see one or two members of a visiting group decide to stay inside their vehicles outside the colony, afraid to step inside.
The brave ones who do get to visit Iwahig are amazed to see how friendly and accommodating the inmates are. They are too willing and eager to share their life stories, offer to be taken photographs with, and sell their handicrafts. It is quite an experience spending time with them.
Iwahig Penal Colony is just 30 minutes away from downtown Puerto Princesa, 16 kilometers to the south, and may be reached by jeepney or tricycle.