After one of history’s worst typhoons stormed through the Philippines, a decimated jail opened its doors to inmates’ displaced families, inciting the most bittersweet of reunions.
When Typhoon Haiyan hit Leyte Provincial Jail in the Philippines last November, Jean He, thirty-four, was visiting her husband, Roberto Anyou, in prison. As the 200-mile-per-hour winds tore apart the building’s roof and walls, they huddled in the communal toilet, praying.
“We’ve never experienced a storm like this. My parents died two years ago and I was thinking during the storm, Maybe this is when I was going to die too,” said Jean, who was five months pregnant at the time. “The other prisoners helped me get to the [toilet] where we took shelter. I just crouched in the corner, protecting my belly.”
When Jean came out after the storm had cleared, she stepped into to a completely different world. The prison, which holds long-term prisoners as well as those awaiting trial, and is the largest in the province of Leyte, was almost completely destroyed, with only one quarter of the building left standing. The roofs of the cells were completely torn off, the gate was dangling on its hinges and the offices were ripped open, with inmate records scattered across the courtyard.
Not only did the typhoon rip apart the prison, but it also destroyed Jean’s house, which her husband paid to have built nearby so that she could visit him as often as possible.
“I saved up secretly for five years to buy her that house. It was built five months ago and now it’s ruined,” said Roberto, forty.
Homeless with a three-year-old child and another on the way, Jean took shelter inside her husband’s prison compound. Perhaps the most unique thing about their newfound cohabitation is that this is the first time in their five-year relationship that they’ve been able to live under the same roof. Roberto has been in prison for seven years awaiting sentencing. While he is vague about the actual events that led to his arrest, and the guards on duty were unable to give a specific answer, he says it involves “saving his cousin’s life.”
Jean was visiting her cousin in prison when Roberto first laid eyes on her. He asked her cousin for Jean’s number, and their relationship began via text. When Jean visited her cousin again, she took time to see Roberto. As she fell in love with him, she worried about their future more and more. Roberto had not yet been sentenced, so the hope that he would be released kept their relationship going.
After the storm, which killed more than 6,000 people and caused nearly $3 billion worth of damage, Jean and their child remained in the prison with Roberto, sleeping on a board in the women’s section. They were one of sixty families who took shelter there. “I’m happy that I have somewhere to live and that we’re together,” said Jean.
They now live in a sari sari, a small convenience store they built from materials found in the prison compound after the typhoon. A blackened hearth and a medley of chairs makes up their outdoor kitchen. During the day they sell cigarettes and chocolates, trying to save for another house. On a good day they can earn P400 ($9), but most days it’s half that. During the night they sleep on the floor of the store with a pillow and mattress shoved against the wall.
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Roberto and Jean are just one of many prisoners and family members now living in such unusual situations. When Remey Esmernio, a thirty-five-year-old inmate, saw the extent of the damage the typhoon caused to the prison, he immediately left to check on his family in Tanauan, a coastal village a two-hour walk away. The village saw more than 1,000 dead and missing. Prison officials allowed many inmates to do the same.
“After the storm, a lot of the guards went with us,” he said. “When I left, the guard left with me. We left at nine a.m. and came back the same evening.”
He found his wife and children alive but his house completely destroyed, so he took them back with him to prison. Esmernio, who is in prison for stealing, now spends his days with his wife, Grace Osmena, who lives here alongside him. His two children, ages six and eight, live with Grace’s parents and visit on the weekends.
“Before, I would visit my husband once a week, and now I can come here three days a week. But it’s only temporary,” said Grace, who is due to give birth to their third child in June.
“Outside, I have his parents’ support. During our visits we talk about the kids and see if he can help out in some way. That’s why they put up a store in prison, so we can put money towards the children’s education,” she added.
According to Frederico Abria, the records supervisor at Leyte Provincial Jail, it is only the “trusted” inmates who are allowed to live in relative freedom with their families within the prison complex.
“It depends on the crimes committed,” said Abria. “If they’ve committed heinous crimes, then they are not among the trusted.
“The families are there only temporarily, waiting until the re-construction of their houses,” he added. “It’s an additional responsibility for the wardens to have these extra families. Food is a problem, and only the prisoners get fed while the rest of the family have to get their own food.”
While the storm has brought some families together, conditions in the prison are cramped and uncomfortable. Thelma Saubon, an inmate in the women’s prison, has been interned here for four months. She and four other inmates are now crammed into one room while waiting the roof of their cell to be fixed.
At the end of January, 185 inmates made a prison break using a sharpened iron bar to force a guard to let them out. When recaptured, the inmates justified their escape by saying they were not getting enough food or shelter after the typhoon. Many also claimed that their cases were over as their records in the hall of judicial records were washed out.
The provincial government of Leyte is prioritizing the repair and rehabilitation of the prison, allotting more than P30 million ($677,353), mostly for roofing and perimeter fence. USAID and other agencies have provided tarps and additional materials.
The inmates now spend their days rebuilding their prison while Jean continues to live in tentative happiness, waiting for the day she is kicked out of prison. Once she is forced to leave, she will most likely have to go to Manila, where her brother and sister live.
“I don’t know what I will do. I can’t work in Tacloban because I have no home now and I can’t leave my children while I work. I don’t know how long my husband will be in prison and I don’t want to think about it,” Jean explains, tears welling up in her eyes as her son plays with her hair.
“I really hope we are able to save enough to build the house again, but I don’t know if we will be able to since I am pregnant and need money for medication,” she adds.
It is a bittersweet task for inmates such as Roberto, as the closer the prison gets to becoming repaired, the shorter the time the families have together.
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Based in Manila, Aya Lowe writes business, travel and human interest stories around Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Lawrence Sumulong is a freelance photographer based in New York City. His work has appeared in Abe’s Penny, The New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog, M le Magazine du Monde and the Milk Gallery, among others. Follow him on twitter @lsdizon.