The Iwahig Penal Colony is an active prison in which 2,000 criminals from all over the country are serving time. So why is a penal colony considered a tourist destination? Let’s find out.
It is the biggest minimum-security prison in the world. Prisoners move freely about and around this fenceless and barrier-less correctional facility, without any intentions of escaping. Not that they enjoy being detained but the penal 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 make money and their families are allowed to live with them in the colony during their time of sentence. Along with family members, Iwahig has about 4,000 residents.
This unparalleled prison system seems to work since there have not been any attempts of escape. Also, prisoners are released as productive citizens. Many of them have decided to stay and start a new life in Palawan after serving their sentence.
Second, it is a tourist destination for its historical significance. During Spanish times, Filipino prisoners were banished to Palawan. When the Americans came, American Governor Wright officially built and established the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in 1904. The first prison director put up vocational activities to make sure the prisoners wouldn’t escape. They were trained in fishing, carpentry, paramedic work, farming, and forestry.
Third, the colony is home to a picturesque 37-hectare farm that is rich with coconut palm trees, rice, and other crops cultivated by the prisoners themselves with the help of their families. Cool waters from a nearby mountain form the Balsahan River that flows through the farm. This is a clean, infinite source of water for the plants and prisoners. From the farm and their produce, the prisoners make money from making handicrafts and selling them in a souvenir shop inside prison. Their handcrafted mahogany carvings are popular export items from Palawan. The prison colony is actually a thriving farm and well visited shopping area for hand-carved wooden crafts.
Fourth, people come to buy unique and cheap souvenir items from the prison shop. Aside from the wood carvings, prisoners make all kinds of recycled items, one of the most popular of which is an animal keychain made from plastic cups. They also sell bracelets, trinkets and arnis (wooden weapons similar to the clubs used by English policemen).
Finally, the prisoners themselves draw in visitors for 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 tell their stories, offer to be taken photographs, and sell their handicrafts. It is quite an experience spending time with them. To be clear, there are in fact lifers and similar offenders in Iwahig, and they are kept in maximum security, away from any contact with visitors.
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.