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Voter respite from Philippines prison blues

In a landmark event for the Southeast Asian country, prisoners were allowed to vote in today's national elections.

Janet, 27, was first to vote. Here she has her finger daubed with indelible ink, a measure to prevent multiple votes being cast by one person. (Simon Roughneen/GlobalPost)

MAKATI CITY, Philippines — “They're probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars,” sings the jailed protagonist in Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," imagining his well-to-do counterparts living it up on the outside.

Inmates in the Philippines got a taste of life outside of jail today. In a landmark event for the Southeast Asian island nation, prisoners voted in the country's national elections.

Final results for the overall election are still forthcoming, but unofficial tallies of 57 percent of votes cast showed presidental favorite Beningo "Noynoy" Aquino well in front with 40.6 percent, ahead of former President Joseph Estrada in second place.

First up to cast her ballot this morning at Makati City Jail in Manila was a 27-year-old who gave her name as Janet. Appearing non-plussed, she told GlobalPost that her voting experience “felt OK. I knew who I wanted to vote for, so it was no big deal.”

Inmates received voter education from a number of NGOs in recent weeks. “They all had a couple of dry runs,” said prison guard Bautista, watching as inmates were called up one by one from the holding area behind an iron gate. The warden's office — temporarily converted into a polling station for the 481 inmates — filled up with prisoners who collected their ballot papers before sitting down to mark their choices.

Prisoners then returned their paper before having their right index finger marked with indelible ink. This is a staple of election transparency in many countries, aiming to prevent multiple votes being cast by one person. International electoral observers kept a close eye on the proceedings and prisoners were quickly shuffled back to their cells.

philippines prison
Inmates at Makati jail await their turn to vote.
(Simon Roughneen/GlobalPost)

Juhani Grossman, the deputy head of mission with the International Foundation on Electoral Systems, commented on the unprecedented privilege granted the inmates. “It is a watershed, and a leap forward for the country," he said after witnessing the voting at Makati jail.

The country's constitution does not prohibit all prisoners form voting unless they have been specifically disenfranchised by law. According to voter registration laws, those imprisoned for "rebellion, sedition, violation of the firearms laws or any crime against national security,” as well as those serving sentences of over one year are prohibited from voting. But not much has ever been done to enforce the rights of the remaining 24,000 eligible voters — out of a total of 40,000 prisoners in Philippines prisons. Prior to this election, rights groups and Catholic bishops started exerting more pressure to set up voting systems inside the prisons.