Philippines drug war turns a teeming jail into a haven

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MANILA, Nov 8 (Reuters) - Jason Madarang, awaiting trial on a charge of drug use, is in a muggy, windowless cell in a Manila prison so overcrowded that inmates must sleep in halls and stairwells and share each toilet with 150 other men.

But with President Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs" raging beyond the walls of Quezon City Jail, Madarang says he is lucky.

"It's safer here," he said. "Outside, if the police want to shoot you, they shoot you, and then say you're a drug pusher."

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In Philippines, jail a safe haven for drug users
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Inmates wait to be taken from Quezon City Jail to court hearings in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A guard points at inmates gathered at the basketball court for a head count before going to sleep at Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates sleep at Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines November 5, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates dance during routine morning exercise at the court inside Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A religious picture is placed next to a microphone and sound system at the chapel of Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates watch a movie at Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates play with a cat at Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An inmate covers his head as he passes the time inside Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates are handcuffed to each other as guards take them from Quezon City Jail to court hearings in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates sleep inside Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Inmates sleep inside Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates are handcuffed to each other as they are brought back from hearings to Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates have their hair cut at Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates sleep inside Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Guards check the lists as inmates are taken from Quezon City Jail to court hearings in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A security guard checks his phone as he watches over inmates inside Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A tattoo is seen on the neck of an inmate in an underground cell of Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A guitar is placed inside a closet at the chapel of Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An inmate who is about to be released wears a wristband with the name of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines late October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Inmates pass the time at Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
"Welcome to Hell" is written on the stairs inside Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A cat is tied to the leg of a sleeping inmate inside Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj SEARCH "DAMIR PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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The Philippines police say they have only shot drug suspects in legitimate operations.

Nearly 2,300 drug users and dealers have been killed in police operations or by suspected vigilantes since Duterte took office on June 30, according to the Philippines police.

Thousands more have been arrested, filling the country's already seething jails to bursting point.

Quezon City Jail was built to hold 800 inmates but is now home to over 3,400 - far too many for its cell area, which is roughly equivalent to three basketball courts.

In mid-August, as Duterte's anti-narcotics campaign intensified, the population briefly topped 4,000 until the jail insisted that detainees were sent elsewhere.

"If we hadn't done that, we'd have 5,000 inmates by now," said Lucila Abarca, the prison's Community Relations Officer.

Two thirds of the inmates are inside on drug-related offenses, according to data maintained by the prison.

Quezon City Jail is a teeming microcosm of a regional crisis driven by an explosion in use of methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug popular across Asia.

Prisons in countries such as Thailand and Myanmar are also chronically overcrowded, thanks largely to inmates on drug-related charges, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

But Philippine jails are Asia's most congested, with an occupancy level of 316 percent, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London.

Globally, the ICPR ranks the Philippines third in prison occupancy levels, behind only Haiti and Benin.

It was natural that the government's "aggressive campaign against criminality and drugs" would boost the jail population, said Jesus Hinlo, Undersecretary for Public Safety at the Department of the Interior and Local Government, which is in charge of Quezon City Jail.

"The solution is...to build new and bigger jails," he said, adding that a lack of funds made this a challenge.

Related: What incarceration in the United States looks like:

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Reality of incarceration in the U.S.
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Reality of incarceration in the U.S.
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FILE -- In this July 24, 2014 file photo, an inmate is seen in one of the cells at the mental health unit at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Stockton Health Facility in Stockton, Calif. In an agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Friday, Aug. 29, state corrections official have agreed to shift mentally ill inmates into specialized housing units instead of placing them in the same isolation units as are used for other inmates, Friday, Aug. 29.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)
Harris County inmate Kristi Leonard leans against a telephone in her cell block Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Houston. Arrested numerous times for prostitution, Leonard is part of a rehabilitation program called We've Been There Done That. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
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PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 11: Undocumented immigrant Jose Reyes Robledo, 42, Mexico poses for a portrait as he serves time in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. He said he has lived in Phoenix and previously San Diego as an undocumented immigrant for 20 years. He is married with three children and was born in the United States. He was arrested and charged in Maricopa County on July, 2012 for armed robbery with a deadly weapon. As an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record, he may likely be deported to Mexico after serving his jail sentence. President Barack Obama's administration deported a record 1.5 million people during his first term of office with 55 percent of deportees in 2012 having a criminal conviction for drug offenses or driving under the influence, according to U.S. immigration officials. The Maricopa County Tent City jail, run by county Sheriff Joe Arpaio, maintains a controversial policy of issuing striped uniforms and pink undergarments to inmates, despite an ongoing court challenge. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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"WELCOME TO HELL"

Prison overcrowding poses "a very big challenge for us in terms of security and the health status of inmates," said Abarca, the prison officer.

Inmates sleep poorly and easily fall sick, she said, and tensions always simmer over the cramped conditions. In July, there was a cholera outbreak caused by contaminated water.

Someone has chalked "WELCOME TO HELL" on the steps leading to Jason Madarang's cellblock.

But the 29-year-old municipal worker, who said five people near his Manila home had been shot dead in recent months, wasn't the only inmate who felt safer there.

His cellmate, Marconino Maximo, 39, said he was arrested a year ago and charged with possessing a pipe for smoking crystal methamphetamine, known in the Philippines as shabu.

"I'm lucky to be here because so many people have been killed," he said.

"There are many police on the outside," added Maximo, gesturing around his seething, dungeon-like cell. "Here, there are none."

There are rarely any prison officers either. Most cellblocks are run by one of four gangs, whose leaders are relied upon to keep the peace, Abarca said.

"Riots can still happen," said Abarca. "We have to conduct regular dialog with cell leaders to address their issues."

Inmates can't be locked in the cells at night because the cells aren't big enough. They sleep on the stairs - one inmate per step - and string hammocks from the rafters and spill into the chapel and classroom.

Others bed down in the prison's only exercise area, its basketball court. When it's not raining.

CHOLERA OUTBREAK

Each morning at 8 a.m., many inmates crowd around the basketball court to sing the national anthem and take part in a short aerobic exercise.

Inmates are encouraged to be as active as possible during the day, Abarca said. But, inmates told a Reuters journalist touring the prison that many men catch up on sleep during the day in the space left by cellmates who exercise, pray in the chapel or form long lines for one of 24 toilets.

At least 2,000 inmates are inside on bailable offenses, according to prison statistics, but most are too poor to pay the bond.

The overcrowding is also a symptom of the slow pace of Philippines justice. Many inmates wait years for their cases to grind through courts.

Duterte's anti-narcotics crackdown is popular with the public - 84 percent of respondents approved of the campaign in an opinion poll last month. But some critics say it has been felt disproportionately by the poor, and that major drug traffickers routinely evade arrest.

Given the choice, former drug user Dennis Charles Ledda, 29, said he would take his chances on the outside.

"It's hell here, mentally and physically," said Ledda, who sleeps in the crawl space beneath another man's bunk.

"Truly, I used drugs," he said. "But if I could get out of here I'd do anything to fix my life."

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