Manila (AFP) – In a whistle worthy of a dentist’s strawberry, the tattoo artist covers with a coarse black cross the tattoo which marks the membership of this detainee in a Filipino gang. A measure acclaimed by the authorities to reduce prison violence.
In the overcrowded prisons of the archipelago, battles between rival gangs are commonplace. And belonging to a gang – materialized by the tattoo of its symbol on the skin – has long been an imperative for detainees, in order to obtain food, medicine, or simply protection.
Living conditions in detention centers have deteriorated a little more in recent years due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”, which has resulted in a marked increase in the prison population.
The authorities believe that covering up tattoos applied by gangs on inmates can allow them to escape the imperative of loyalty to these gangs and prevent them from being drawn into gang wars. The idea is above all to complicate the deal for the bosses seeking to mobilize their troops.
“The inmates join the gangs for security,” observes Gabriel Chaclag, spokesman for the prison administration, ensuring that the campaign which began in October to urge inmates to get rid of the mark of the bands is done on the voluntary basis.
Sitting on plastic chairs, shirtless with a surgical mask on their face, prisoners wait for one of their fellow inmates, a master of the art of tattooing, to draw a thick black cross on the mark symbolizing their gang.
“Being in a gang means that you have to help other members if they get caught up in a fight. That won’t be the case anymore, ”said Mark, an inmate convicted of murder, refusing to have his real identity cited.
“Now it will be brotherhood, we are all brothers,” he says after the tattoo on his back is obscured, making him a “querna,” or inmate not affiliated with a gang.
The authorities recognize that this program will not make it possible to turn the page on violence overnight. In the past, efforts to curb fights, such as a “peace deal” between gangs, have had limited results.
Lex Ledesma, a psychologist who wrote a book on Bilibid’s gangs, knows that eradicating violence won’t happen by covering tattoos alone. Because gangs have imposed themselves in the power vacuum left by the authorities, whose presence in prisons is notoriously insufficient.
“For prisoners forgotten by their relatives in the prison, the gangs are like a family because they are the only ones to take care of them”, explains Mr. Ledesma, who intervenes in Bilibid for 10 years, and deplores the renouncements of the state in prisons.
“The biggest problem here is the unwillingness of the authorities to allow the reintegration of detainees, a deficiency that already existed before Duterte,” he says.
“When you become a prisoner, it’s like you’re half a man, like you’re no longer a full human being. “