Murderers wander with machetes at idyllic Philippine prison

Murderers wander with machetes at idyllic Philippine prison
In this photo taken on June 6, 2014, an inmate from the medium security compound holding a machete stands on rice straw as he and colleagues work on a rice field at Iwahig prison in Puerto Princesa, Palawan island.

IWAHIG, Philippines - One hundred convicts armed with machetes wander through a vast prison without walls in one of the Philippines' most beautiful islands, a unique approach to reforming criminals.

Two token guards with shotguns slung on their shoulders relax in the shade nearby as the blue-shirted group of inmates chop weeds at a rice paddy at the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm on Palawan island.

But Arturo, who is 21 years into a life sentence for murder, has no plans to escape, preferring to keep his chances of an eventual commutation or even a pardon.

"I don't want to live the life of a rat, panicked into bolting into a hole each time a policeman comes my way," the 51-year-old inmate, whose full name cannot be used in keeping with prison regulations, told AFP.

Surrounded by a thick coastal mangrove forest, a mountain range and a highway, the 26,000-hectare (64,000-acre) Iwahig jail is one of the world's largest open prisons, more than two times the size of Paris.

A single guard sits at its largely ceremonial main gate, routinely waving visitors through without inspection.

A shallow ditch, but no walls, is all that separates the 3,186 prisoners from the outside world.

A mere 14 kilometres (nine miles) away is Puerto Princesa, a city of 250,000 people and a top tourist destination as the gateway to an island famed for stunning dive sites, a giant underground river system and beautiful beaches.

A steady stream of local and foreign tourists visit Iwahig's quaint, pre-World War II prison administration buildings and a handicrafts shop, which is manned by inmates who have made the items on sale.

A few hundred hectares of the land is devoted to rice paddies, which sit picturesquely on either side of a fire-tree-lined dirt road. Ducks, goats, cattle and egrets feed quietly on newly harvested plots.

Fish ponds, coconut plantations, corn fields and vegetable plots are scattered across the prison, although the bulk of the land remains covered by forest and mangroves.

Penal colony's harsh history

US colonial rulers established Iwahig in 1904 for political prisoners and Manila's worst inmates, seeking to isolate them in what was then a sparsely inhabited frontier about 600 kilometres (370) miles from the nation's capital.

Prisoners were used to clear virgin rainforests for farming, which would in turn encourage migration from the archipelago's more populous areas.

After the Philippines won independence post-World War II, those who had served out their term were also given the option to clear and own up to six hectares of land.

Up until the 1970s, the prisons had much tougher security than today, with chain gangs of inmates the norm.

Most other jails in the Philippines continue with brutal conditions, with inmates packed beyond capacity in dingy, airless cells and having to take turns sleeping.

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