When Byron F. Garcia was appointed head of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Cebu province of the Philippines, he implemented a program of choreographed exercised routines for the inmates, which originally consisted of inmates marching to the beat of a drum. This eventually evolved into dancing to pop music, starting with decidedly camp Village People songs like YMCA and In the Navy. The initiative was a huge success among prisoners, bringing down the levels of criminality –especially gang-related- inside the prison radically, because inmates are always busy practicing their choreographies, of course. Let’s not forget that this prison holds very dangerous criminals. In my opinion, this is also a beautiful example of bringing some dignity to the lives of these prisoners.
Cebu prison became an Internet and media phenomenon when five years ago, a mere 10 hours after Michael Jackson died, the inmates performed Thriller in the prison courtyard for the whole world to see. They stayed up all night in order to be able to pay their ultimate tribute to the King of Pop.
Byron F. García writes on the YouTube page where the original video is hosted: “Because of the hideous conditions in jails, prisons are like tombs and inmates are like ghoulish creatures. The only difference is that dancers in the MJ Thriller video come with make-up and costumes. The Dancing Inmates come as themselves. People perceived to be evil.” He continues saying that governments have to stop looking the other way, prisons continue to be hell, “We have to stop being entertained and thrilled by the sting of sin. We have to look at prisons beyond the cycle of crime and punishment and certainly look inside underlying social, cultural and psychological implications of rehabilitation.”
The prison of CPDRC now even has its own official choreography teachers and Byron Garcia has created a team of former “Dancing Inmates” to spread the message of “Music and Dance Therapy” to all jails in the Philippines. A Pilot Project has been agreed with authorities and is being implemented in the three largest prisons in the country: Manila City Jail, Quezon City Jail, Makati City Jail.
Dancing has not only proved an excellent way to motivate inmates and prevent criminal activities, it has also promoted teambuilding. Due to their nature, choreographies can assimilate many different types of participants. One of the leading roles in the famous Thriller tribute, for example, was played by a popular gay/transvestite prisoner Wenjiel Resane (above). It also encourages some healthy competition for the leading parts in each choreography.
The success of the initiative is such that inmates today even participate in public events and celebrations. Some of these performances receive donations from the people. In 2008 the prison started celebrating live performances for visitors, who could watch from the upper galleries. Visitors can even have their photographs with the prisoners and buy souvenirs created by the inmates.
In 2010 the inmates performed the “They Don’t Care About Us” intro from “Bad”, a choreography created specifically for them by Travis Payne, a choreographer for Michael Jackson himself. Payne and two of the original dancers of Jackson’s This Is It show danced with the inmates, after teaching them the choreography. The video, by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment was part of the global launch of the This Is It DVD. Apparently, while still alive, Michael Jackson enjoyed watching the inmates dance on YouTube.
The famous viral video of the inmates dancing the Thriller routine and their subsequent fame has also inspired a new YouTube musical called “Prison Dancer” (above) which will be about the lives of eight Filipino maximum-security inmates whose lives are changed after a video of their dancing rehabilitation program goes viral on YouTube.
In April 2011, during the Tribeca Film Festival, in New York, he was awarded the “Disruptive Innovator Award”.
And of course, due to international demand, the dancing inmates of Cebu Prison simply had to dance…you guessed it…Gangnam Style!! Even if it meant having to do so under the pouring rain. So, if you haven’t seen it yet…