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So… I promised my wife that we’d go somewhere this weekend and not just stay in the house, like we usually do. Imagine her uncontrollable excitement when I said we were going to go to the local sub prison and penal farm, with our 18-month-old daughter!

I know it sounds rather bizarre, but our local penal colony actually has some great scenery and the inmates are always welcome of visitors – especially foreigners like me who can speak the local lingo.

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The last time we went there was last year and despite not having the correct paperwork, we were still allowed in for a look around. This time, we did everything by the book and got a permission slip from the local tourism office in our town first. When I say permission slip, it consisted of telling a guy in the tourism office – who I genuinely think was just there as a maintenance man – that we wanted to go the penal colony and lake. We paid him 50 pesos and filled out our own paperwork, which we also had to find in the filing cabinets as he didn’t know where it lived.

Anyway, permission slip in hand we set off for the penal colony on my motorbike…

Sablayan town mural

The town mural outside our local tourism office

When you arrive at the particular gate we entered by, there’s a rather lacklustre sign marking the start of the penal colony (the one seen in the photo featured at the top of this post). However, once you go beyond that point you know you are no longer just on a normal road. That’s because almost everything inside the penal colony is maintained.

The roads are all nicely tarmacked, there’s no rubbish strewn about the place and the flower beds and vegetables are immaculate.

Inside Sablayan penal colony

My wife’s view as we entered the penal colony on my bike

Almost immediately you can see the fruits of the inmates’ work:

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Maybe two kilometres down the road you get to a checkpoint where you have to show your paperwork to proceed. I chatted to a couple of the guards for a few minutes before they allowed us to continue on into the centre of the penal colony.

Checkpoint inside Sablayan penal colony

The first checkpoint in Sablayan sub prison and penal farm

Once you hit the centre of the prison you start seeing the inmates. The ones dressed in brown and blue are deemed ‘low risk’, whereas the ones dressed in orange have the words ‘maximum inmate’ displayed. Despite all these convicted criminals wandering about, there was never once a feeling of unease.

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We happened upon the prison hospital, where a group of likely lads were hanging out. I stopped the bike and we got off for a chat. They were all blown away by my Tagalog (Filipino) and deeply touched that my daughter wanted to share her chocolate biscuits with them.

When we arrived there were just about to have their lunch. I joking quipped that I’d join them and share what they were having. There’s no doubt in my mind that this would have been absolutely fine.

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Next to the hospital is the main centre-point of the prison, but visitors aren’t allowed to go inside or even take pictures outside. After a brief chat with the guard on duty I managed to get this snap of the gate:

The main gate of Sablayan sub prison and penal farm

I asked how many inmate the penal colony housed and his reply was “over 2,000.” He said they’d just taken 400 the previous day from the main prison here in the Philippines at Muntinlupa. They were all being held beyond the gate above while they get acquainted to life at a more relaxed facility.

It must be hard to keep track of that many prisoners when they have free roam of literally thousands of acres of land.

With not much else to see or do here we headed for Libuao Lake – one of the focal points of the penal colony. It’s basically just a lake, but it’s teeming with fish and looks awesome covered in lily pads. The main sign has seen better days, but the beauty of the lake more than makes up for it.

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Being a farm, you’d expect crops and animals and this immense penal colony doesn’t disappoint – especially with its rows and rows of vegetables that the inmates are cultivating.

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We also saw a chap riding a carabao (Filipino buffalo), who was more than willing to pose for a picture. He even had a baby carabao following on behind him and his workmate.

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As you head out the other end of the colony there’s a rather impressive bridge; certainly the sturdiest I’ve ever seen. It’s a great vantage point from which to take some more snaps of the river below.

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Quite a nice shot of a family of carabao bathing in the river:

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There was also an inmate walking along the bridge, who was rather surprised, yet hugely grateful when I gave him a packet of chocolate biscuits. I stole this picture while he was walking off into the distance. As we rode past him a little later he gave me a big thumbs up.

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My daughter was rather taken by the carabaos . In fact, we couldn’t get her to leave and even my threats of “we’ll leave you here” had zero effect.

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While our little family excursion may not be to everyone’s taste, it was still a fun day away from the house. Plus, the inmates and guards we spoke to were all very appreciative of someone to chat to, so I like to think we made their day better too.

This last picture we took is probably my favourite. It proves that no matter how harsh the conditions, life still finds a way…

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