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Natural Disasters

Escaped prisoners return to a Tacloban jail

After escaping through the roof during Typhoon Haiyan, more than 300 inmates have returned to Leyte Provincial Prison near Tacloban, where they at least have food, water and shelter.

During one of the worst storms in history, Edwin Cornejo and his brother Roger Cornejo sat in Leyte Provincial Jail, tucked behind hills in a remote area outside Tacloban, Philippines.

After 300 km/h winds blew away the prison roof, hundreds of prisoners scaled iron bars and jumped down about five meters to escape through the swamp to look for their families on the devastated coast.

But the Cornejo brothers, charged with allegedly stabbing a man to death ten years ago, were considered "trusted inmates."

"We didn't want to ruin our good reputations with the wardens," Edwin told DW.

They decided that Roger would remain in the prison, while Edwin escaped to help their family.

Accused of murder, Edwin Cornejo, 33 (left) and his brother Roger, 34 (right) have spent 10 years in jail awaiting court rulingsvia
(Photo: DW / Christopher Johnson)

Wardens call the Cornejo brothers 'model prisoners'

All but 20 of the 588 detainees escaped, says Judito Cornejo Banas, the guard who was on duty during the November 8 storm. "The roof flew away. The prisoners flew away also," he recounted the story. "They were afraid of high tides. They wanted to find their families and see if they were ok."

Food and shelter, at least

Over the next few days, as opportunistic thieves and desperate locals looted stores and homes, an unusual thing began to happen. Some of the escaped prisoners, driven by relatives, returned to the jail. In the first month after the storm, 306 prisoners returned, and 262 remained at large, according to Banas and other prison officials.

"At least we have access to food and water here," Edwin told DW in an interview in the prison's courtyard. "We are safer here than we are outside."

To round up escaped prisoners, the wardens organized a "recovery team" using motorcycles and police trucks. The team, which had detailed information about each inmate, often found them at their family homes. While most surrendered, officers had to chase down those who wouldn't cooperate.

The prison staff welcomes a reporter, who shows up unannounced one afternoon, to look around the prison compound and talk with inmates
(Photo: DW / Christopher Johnson)

The prison staff welcomed this reporter, who showed up unannounced one afternoon, to talk with inmates

Banas explained that Edwin Cornejo had been a model prisoner for 10 years, and he had been certain that he would return eventually.

Edwin said he spent two hours on November 8 walking over wreckage in bare feet to reach his native Tanauan, a devastated coastal area with more than 1000 dead and missing. He could barely recognize his former neighborhood. His house had been washed away. He found his parents and his three children in an evacuation shelter with other survivors, and he spent three weeks helping them get food and water before voluntarily returning to the prison.

Life out of prison was worse

Edwin said he was afraid he might be killed: "There were looters and criminals causing trouble. I felt that my life was in danger outside the prison. I am innocent, so I decided to return and wait for my court case. If I run away and don't surrender, then they will think I am guilty."

Prison officials give inmates a pig to slaughter for their meals, better than they could get outside
(Photo: DW / Christopher Johnson)

Prison officials gave inmates a pig to slaughter for their meals

His brother explained that he stayed behind to uphold is reputation as a trusted inmate. "I was afraid of the storm and I wanted to run away. But I was also afraid to leave, because I wanted to keep a good reputation here. I was trusted to take care of other prisoners here, so I decided to stay."

Banas and the other prison officials explained that many inmates are caught in bureaucratic tangles. They welcomed me, after showing up unannounced, to look around the prison compound. Security seemed unusually lax.

The Cornejo brothers and others could have easily fled through open gates if they wanted.

Rebuilding their own prison

Instead, many worked to rebuild their prison, hammering nails into wood or digging a pit for compost. Wardens allow their family members, including women and children, to stay with them during the recovery process, since many have no homes by the coast.

While their clothes dried on lines, some inmates work to rebuild their prison by constructing a new roof and digging a pit for compost
(Photo: DW / Christopher Johnson)

Inmates work to rebuild their prison by constructing a new roof

US Aid and other agencies have provided tarps and other materials. Prison officials gave them a large pig to slaughter and eat.

As their clothes dried on lines in the afternoon sun, many of the prisoners waved and smiled at this reporter. Others seem dejected to be in jail.

"They might not have freedom here, but at least they have food and water," Banas said. "That is more than many people in the area right now."

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