Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons Season 5, Episode 2 recap: Philippines The War on Drugs Prison

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 02: Netflix logo is displayed during the 'Paris Games Week' on November 02, 2017 in Paris, France. Netflix is an American company offering streaming movies and TV series on the Internet. 'Paris Games Week' is an international trade fair for video games and runs from November 01 to November 5, 2017. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 02: Netflix logo is displayed during the 'Paris Games Week' on November 02, 2017 in Paris, France. Netflix is an American company offering streaming movies and TV series on the Internet. 'Paris Games Week' is an international trade fair for video games and runs from November 01 to November 5, 2017. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images) /

Episode 502 of the Netflix series Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons takes us into the Manila City Jail in the Philippines. In little time at all, series host Raphael Rowe shows us why it’s called “The War on Drugs Prison.” While the war on drugs is known for creating a higher prison population, the Manila City Jail is quite literally run by its drug gangs, with approximately only 1 guard for every 400 inmates. Although the gangs are quite dangerous, another maddening detail is just how crowded the facility is, as the place seems to be teeming with inmates.

Why is the prison so jam-packed? While there certainly are genuine criminals in the facility, it’s also true that Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte is not relenting in his efforts to stuff prisons, possibly to the breaking point. We even see a clip where an undeterred Duterte refers to “human rights idiots” who criticize his zealous efforts. Near the episode’s beginning, Rowe accompanies some an anti-drug raid, and we see their alleged meth-selling suspect is a young, pregnant woman with a child.

Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons: Entering the Manila City Jail

There are 160,000 drug war prisoners in the Philippines. If you enter the Manila City Jail, you will be labeled officially as a “person deprived of liberty” (in fact, they print that on their inmate’s bright yellow shirts, which also say “changing lives, building a safer nation.” However, things don’t seem particularly safe as Rowe enters dorm 4, where people are crammed like proverbial sardines into a small space.

Yes, limited space is a major factor in this episode yet, interestingly, it might encourage prisoners to actually engage more civilly with each other, as everyone seems aware of the increased tension of the situation. Rowe meets fellow inmates J.R., T.J., and Ading. Rowe learns one of the harsh rules imposed by the prison gangs: If you accidentally bump into a visitor, you get 50 whacks from a wooden paddle! Awkwardly, prisoners are forced by their cramped circumstances to sleep close together, even somewhat embracing each other (possibly as part of the prisoner’s psychological humiliation, in addition to whether or not it’s an unavoidable condition).

The gang system

As usual, Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons looks at the gang system in the prison, providing some intricate details. The Manila City Jail operates by a gang system called “pangkat” where mayores, or “mayors” are, to a large degree, officiated by prison. Basically, you have to play by their rules or you will not do so well.

Considering many prisoners spend years on remand without even being found guilty, an inmate at this prison will need to learn the ropes. An inmate named Hans tells Rowe of someone who spent 14 years in prison until being acquitted! We also learn that (1) a “querna” is what they call someone who’s not in a gang and (2) gangs agree to discipline their own members to prevent conflict. While this prison does seem harsh in many ways, that policy seems like a pretty solid approach to reducing violence.


Previous episodes of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons have highlighted gross prison food, but this time Raphael Rowe doesn’t seem particularly grossed out by anything. In fact, as he assists a man named Roger in the kitchen, the most abnormal factor seems to be the lack of prison guards around, as meal-time is also managed by the gangs. Still, relatively acceptable food doesn’t subtract from the struggle of having scarcely any personal space and privacy.

Better than the outside?

Next, a man named Jin Ragan shows Raphael around. Ragan says he was in prison 10 times, including once for murder, drugs, and theft. We also see that one of the prison’s mayores has a much better cell and even his own TV! However, rather than it being a source of outrage, Janard says the inmates actually voted for him to have a better cell (though we don’t get specifics on how the vote took place).

In one of the episode’s more poignant moments, a rapper named Suzuki reveals that he’s learning to read in prison, and also suggests his life is better inside than outside. It’s definitely a sad statement, but one that can be heard from prisoners in many countries, including the United States. Raphael also investigates the differences between the BCJ and Sputnik gangs, and they assure him that the gangs do their best to communicate problems now, to avoid things getting out of hand.

The lighter side of Manila City Jail?

While no paradise on earth, Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons does like to show some of the things which make prison life a little less horrible. For example, when we see a bunch of inmates dancing in an exercise class and having fun, it makes the place look a little less grueling. Then again, when Rowe reveals how the prison’s guards search for contraband, the potential for danger still doesn’t seem far behind.

One might ask: With gang leaders being more in charge than guards, how is some semblance of order actually kept in Manila City Jail? One factor is that the dorm leaders don’t want to lose their privileges. In such an overcrowded place, this could actually be a powerful motivator. Also, some prisoners apparently can learn a professional trade, such as an inmate named Edison who is learning massage therapy classes. The question is, will Edison stick with massage therapy or go back to meth crimes?

Speaking with the warden

As the episode winds down, Rowe addresses the issue that police corruption is likely in the Philippines. He highlights general suspicions that, in some cases, quota systems in the drug war might make cops plant drugs. Also, with limited accountability measures, what is there to discourage corruption? The episode doesn’t really examine this issue in-depth, but at least it gets mentioned.

Finally, Raphael Rowe interviews Warden Latoza. The Warden comes across as sort of an average guy, describing the situation in plain terms. He suggests that, due to the overcrowding caused by the drug war and the prison’s limited budget, the “shared governance” between the prisoners and authorities is a coping mechanism. When put that way, it sounds relatively sane, plus it gives some prisoners themselves a stake in what goes on in the prison. Still, there are no doubt better places to be.

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