Dancing Prisoners from Cebu Provincial Detention Center
Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center also known by its initials CPDRC is a maximum security prison in Cebu, in the Cebu Province, the Philippines.
Byron F. Garcia, the official security advisor to the Cebu government who was assigned as head of the prison by his sister Gwendolyn Garcia, governor of Cebu Province is credited for starting a program of choreographed exercise routines for the inmates. The prison is best known worldwide for their viral version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. They have followed that with many other dance routines of popular songs. The prison management has also released a video explaining the concept behind the prison management at CPDRC.
Byron F. Garcia originally wanted to introduce a program at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) where inmates would exercise for an hour each day. He saw waves of prisoners in the exercise yard and thought it looked good. He also claims in a British documentary that his inspiration came while watching the movie The Shawshank Redemption in particular the scene where the sounds of Mozart’s Figaro flood the prison yard.
Garcia initially introduced an exercise program where the prisoners marched in unison, starting out with marching to the beat of a drum, but moved on to dancing to pop music; he began with one of his favourite songs, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”. He chose camp music such as In The Navy and Y.M.C.A. by The Village People, so macho prisoners would not be offended at being asked to dance.
Garcia’s first upload of prisoner choreography was the Algorithm March, but this was almost entirely ignored. But the next upload Thriller had a massive response.
The prison now even has its own official choreographer teachers, like Vince Rosales and Gwen Laydor. Some prisoners are chosen more prominently for more sophisticated routines while the general prison population (sometimes up to 1500 inmates) participate with simpler more accessible routines.
Thriller viral video
Thriller was uploaded on July 17, 2007. It was a YouTube remake of Michael Jackson’s original “Thriller” music video.
Crisanto Nierre plays Michael Jackson’s role in the video. The openly gay inmate Wenjiel Resane plays the role of Michael Jackson’s girlfriend. Both Crisanto Nierre and Wenjiel Resane enjoy popularity amongst YouTube fans and their faces usually highlighted quite often in most later videos.
On December 19, 2007, in an article on “Most Popular Viral Videos”, Time Magazine placed the inmates’ Cebu Thriller as 5th in its Top 10 list. Time’s stated description of the prisoners was: “Orange-jumpsuited accused murderers, rapists and drug dealers paid homage to Michael Jackson’s Thriller in a dance performance filmed at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines (CPDRC).”  Public performances
On October 6, 2007, Cardinal Archbishop Ricardo Vidal visited CPDRC for the first time, and the prisoners performed six dances for him, as part of the celebration of the Prison Awareness Month; the Archbishop noted, “It was a marvelous show of discipline. If only they had practiced that (discipline) in their lives, they wouldn’t be here.”
Some chosen inmates of CPDRC (about 20 in number) performed a surprise show (a medley of “Thriller”, “Jump” and “Radio Gaga”) in front of the Cebu Capitol. This performance was a request by the inmates as their contribution to the 438th Founding anniversary celebration. The Governor and Provincial Officials were so moved that they included all 1500 inmates in the giving of the mid-year bonus for Capitol employees. Each inmate was given 1,000 Philippines pesos ($US 22) an incentive for good behavior.
On December 27, 2007, Vice Mayor Michael Rama, acting mayor of Cebu City, noted the inmates’ request to be in the Sinulog Festival as Sinulog Foundation executive director Ricky Ballesteros informed the former of the possibility of CPDRC’s participation. Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia took part in some of the dancing exercises with the prisoners.
A performance of the “Thriller” routine at Cebu City’s Founding Day celebrations resulted in a donation of 1.6 million pesos. Each inmate received 1000 pesos.
“Together in Electric Dreams” by Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder, and Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice were presented during the provincial governor Gwendolyn Garcia visit to the prison, on her birthday in October. A competition was held amongst the prisoners as to who would take the lead role of Vanilla Ice in the dance.
Starting April, 2008, Cebu provincial inmates’ live dances are open to visitors who watch from the higher corridors the dance routines. After the 2 hour monthly program (done on certain Saturdays), visitors can have their pictures taken with the prisoners and buy souvenir prison shirts. Young Egan Torrecampo, is the openly gay and flamboyant lead dancer of the jailhouse troupe and has gained notoriety in his own right.
Following Jackson’s death in 2009, they performed a tribute to Jackson in front of hundreds of spectators at the prison. 1,500 CPDRC inmates performed an entire nine-and-a-half minute show of choreographed dance moves to various Michael Jackson songs on Saturday, June 27, as a loving tribute to the singer. The Filipino inmates put the show together just 10 hours after receiving word that Jackson had died.
The Queen Medley comprising of a mix of 8 Queen songs notably includes the performance of popular gay/transvestite prisoner Wenjiel Resane dressed as a ballerina performing a major routine. Wenjiel was most famous for his performance in “Thriller” with prisoner Crisanto Nierre. The CPDRC 8-minute long group performance of Queen songs ends with the appeal “Peace to mankind” and a quotation from Byron F. Garcia: “If we make life like a living hell for these fallen angels, then we might just be turning out devils once they are released and re-integrated into society”.
Grease Lightning was performed on November 28, 2009 on the third anniversary of a shooting at CPDRC between feuding gangs. The lead dancing privilege was given to Arabo, one of the surviving gang leaders at that particular deadly feud. It was a farewell performance by inmate Arabo before being transferred to Manila’s Muntinlupa prison to serve three consecutive life sentences for a triple murder he was convicted of. He has to serve a minimum of 90 years before being ever released.
They Don’t Care About Us with intro from “Bad” was performed by the CPDRC inmates on January 19, 2010. The dance was specially choreographed for them by Travis Payne, the Michael Jackson choreographer and associate director of This Is It. Through an initiative of “Sony Pictures Home Entertainment”, Payne and two of the top dancers of Michael Jackson’s This Is It show, Daniel Celebre and Dres Reid performed with the CPDRC inmates in the Cebu prison, with all the inmate dancers wearing This Is It tribute black T-shirts. Payne, Celebre and Reid taught the routine to the inmates in the span of 2 days, and all three took part with them in the public performance. The video shoot was part of the global launch of Jackson’s This Is It DVD by Sony Pictures Worldwide. The specially prepared mix contained dance routines and sampling from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” in the intro, and a tribute to Martin Luther King while an audio of his speech is being played. Will Devaughn, a popular Filipino model and actor took part in the routine carrying a poster of the African-American civil rights activist. King is specifically mentioned in the song lyrics as well (“Some things in life they just don’t wanna see / But if Martin Luther was livin’ / He wouldn’t let this be”). In addition to the dance video, a feature video of Payne and the MJ Dancers visit to the prison, the dance practices and visits to Cebu officials was made to document this initiative. Payne Travis and company also danced to “Thriller” with the inmates. The “Thriller” viral video by the CPDRC inmates featuring Crisanto Nierre and Wenjiel Resane had catapulted the inmates to fame. “Michael saw the Cebu dancing inmates on YouTube and enjoyed them immensely,” said his choreographer, Travis Payne. “During rehearsals, we would watch and he would get tremendous joy.” Sony Pictures’ Fritz Friedman told USA Today, “We thought it would be a great idea to pay homage to MJ on the occasion of the release of This Is It by going to Cebu and having Travis work with the dancers to create this piece which is from the film.” The inmates also made special performance of their Michael Jackson tribute routine.
In February 2010, Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia ordered that the program be put on hold, pending investigation of proper accounting practices for donations received by generous admirers to CPDRC program. The inmates’ longstanding choreographer, Gwen Lador, has also resigned. The contract of Byron Garcia as Capitol security consultant expires this year. Media reports talk about strains in relationship between Byron Garcia and his sister governor Gwendolyn Garcia. She instructed the Provincial Agriculture Office to continue with the reform and intensify the program on planting of crops inside the compound instead of dancing, expressing concerns that the dance performances were overshadowing the general rehabilitation program.
After a public outcry asking for the resumption of the dancing program for the inmates, Cebu Capitol consultant Rory Jon Sepulveda said that the rehabilitation by way of dancing at the CPDRC has continued but the public viewing has been put on hold. “The CPDRC is now on regular operations—the dancing continues to be one of the rehabilitation activities,” Sepulveda said and that “public performances will resume once the mechanism for full accountability on donations are in place”.Also, as a sharp difference from earier days, beginning March 2010, the dancing has become optional almost 50% of the prisoners said they would not take part anyway after suspension of public performances. The Governor had already sought the services of the original “Thriller” choreographer, Vince Rosales, to teach the dance routines inside the jail facility for the inmates.
The prison has been criticized by prison rehabilitation experts and human rights campaigners who claim that the enforced dance routines are exploitative and not proper rehabilitation. Some former prisoners have alleged violence against those who refuse to join in. Amnesty International also claim cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions persist in Philippine prisons, jails and other detention centres. They have stated their concerns about overcrowding, insufficient food provision, poor ventilation & poor sanitation.