Boogie Behind Bars: Inmates Dance the Days Away

A group of 900-plus Filipino prisoners dance to Michael Jackson's "Thriller."


Aug. 14, 2007 — -- The story below first ran on July 26, 2007. Since then, i-CAUGHT has traveled to the island of Cebu in the Philippines to report on the jailhouse video and speak to Byron Garcia, the director and choreographer of these incredible performances, which involve about 1,500 inmates.

The program will also introduce you to the lead actors in the "Thriller" piece and provide viewers with a front-row seat at the prisoners' final performance, which took place Aug. 1.

The prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center may have seen "Jailhouse Rock" a few too many times.


Hundreds of inmates at the prison in Cebu, Philippines, have taken to performing large-scale dance numbers to such classics as Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Queen's "Radio Gaga" and several songs from the "Sister Act" films to help pass the time while serving sentences or awaiting trial.

"There's a time to dance and a time to sing," said chief administrator Patrick Rubio of the Directorate of Operations within the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in the Philippines.

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"If they say laughter is the best medicine, how much more for dancing?" Rubio said.

According to an eyewitness account of the facility by Adam Jasper of Vice magazine's Web site, the detention center is run by Byron F. Garcia, who posted videos of several of the dance numbers on YouTube to show off his prisoners' talent.

The most popular of the nine videos is the prison's reenactment of Michael Jackson's classic video "Thriller," which has already been visited by a whopping 1.3 million users since it was uploaded in April.

"While the goal is to keep the body fit in order to keep the mind fit, such may not happen if it is done in a manner deemed unpleasurable," Garcia told Filipino's Sun Star publication. "Music, being the language of the soul, is added to that regimen."

Melita Thomeczeck, the Philippine's deputy consulate general in New York, is not surprised by the prison's unconventional rehabilitation regimen.

"It's probably like some kind of 'ra-ra' event. Probably something the warden set up to pull their minds off other things."

The productions are huge — more than 900 inmates are involved in the routines — and though a small group of dancers makes up the core of the routine, every prisoner has a part and each one seems completely absorbed in the performance.

Rubio, who was a warden at various facilities for more than six years before his transfer to the Directorate of Operations, believes the prisoners' participation is completely voluntary.

"It would be different if they are being forced to dance," Rubio told "I've never known any prisoners being forced to dance. It's normal to dance."

While prison-related music productions in American jails have been limited to the occasional concert by the likes of Johnny Cash, who performed a historic concert at California's Folsom State Prison in 1968, or Metallica, which shot a video at San Quentin in San Francisco, many Filipinos find nothing extraordinary about the inmates' devotion to dance.

"Filipino detainees try to make their life less difficult by engaging in such activities," said a Filipino police officer working in New York. "Music and dancing is so much a way of life in the Philippines, and Filipinos have this tendency to sing and dance their way out of even the most complicated situations."

Thomeczeck agreed. "The Filipinos love music and they love to sing and dance. Whatever they are in a natural way, they can continue that habit in prison."

Regardless of their on-camera charisma, according to Rubio, a majority of the inmates at the facility are most likely awaiting trial for any number of crimes, ranging from petty shoplifting to murder or rape.

Based on Rubio's experience as a warden, he's unsettled by the security issues raised by having so many inmates in the same place.

"As a jail officer, I got worried when I saw it," Rubio told "I know that the Cebu Provincial Jail is undermanned like some of the city jails, and securing those vast numbers of inmates poses a big problem. Inmate dancing is not prohibited in our Operations Manual, but the one performed by Cebu Provincial inmates was a disaster in waiting."

Along with the security risk, Edward Latessa, professor and head of division of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, told that the prisoners are not being rehabilitated.

"I suppose the inmates have some fun," said Latessa, who cited several examples of similar programs that have been attempted, and for the most part abandoned, by American prison officials. "But there's always a concern when you have programs like that and you're offering them as rehabilitation programs. The people that are participating think they're getting something out of it, but they're not."

"That's a potentially harmful effect," he added.

Rather, Latessa argued that more appropriate rehabilitation programs, like substance abuse or family reunification programs, should be implemented with such coordination and vigor.

But the Filipino police officer believes such group song-and-dance programs are not a distraction from rehabilitation, but an integral part of it.

"It combines the need for physical exercise and their love to sing and dance. In more ways than one, it contributes to their rehabilitation and eventual reintegration."

Thomeczeck sees the possibility of an even greater positive effect: "It's a way to put themselves together physically and probably spiritually."

She added: "That's good, isn't it?"

See the YouTube video here.