Voter respite from Philippines prison blues

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.

Just a few miles from Makati jail, in the upper middle-class neighborhood of Bel-Air, hundreds of people were lined up by 7 a.m. to vote. The relative calm inside the gated community — modelled on similar ones seen in southern California — was a far cry from the tightly controlled prison. Bel-Air is a reminder of why the Philippines is sometimes typecast as "The 51st State" — a janus-faced archipelago not sure whether to look north and west to the rest of Asia or further east to the U.S.

Just as the inmate of Johnny Cash's song was riled by perceived inequalities, Filipinos hope that a change in government will help ease the country's growing poverty. The overall wealth disparity has widened over the past decade, despite the country's 5-percent average economic growth.

The Bel-Air neighborhood is full of people trying to make a difference. “I produce a product for malnourished children,” said 80-year-old Sergio Moninant, while waiting to scan his ballot through the computer system designed to read and count the roughly 45 million votes.

This year's elections mark the first time the Philippines has used an automated system. The usual worries about vote-buying, intimidation of voters and blatant cheating have been compounded by an eve-of-election scare centering on the viability of the scanners. 76,000 were recalled, reprogrammed and sent back out to voting precincts across the country's more than 7,000 islands.

On Monday morning, many malfunctioned, or had to be fixed again. Presidential favorite Aquino had to wait an hour to cast his vote, while technicians looked into a stalled scanner near his hacienda-like constituency 80 miles north of Manila.

But back in Makati jail, the brief respite from the grind of prison life quickly came to an end. A mere 10 minutes after the warden called her name, Janet had run through the full voting procedure. Looking around at the officials jostling to maintain order, she gave a shrug. “Back to the cell now for me,” she said, as the female guards led her away once more.