Development & Education

In typhoon-hit Tacloban, some families have moved into the local prison


Credit: Aurora Almendral

Jing Geronimo, inmate Roberto Maanyo and their son Robert James stand outside the small shack the family shares on the grounds of the Leyte Provincial Prison on the outskirts of Tacloban.

Like most of the buildings around the Philippine city of Tacloban, the Leyte Provincial Prison is a wreck. The gate is hanging off its hinges, and the cell blocks are in ruins. Guards are stationed under plastic tarps. With no place to be locked up, many of the inmates are free to roam the grounds. They play cards, do chores, keep pet roosters.

Player utilities

It's an unusual setup.

Immediately after Typhoon Haiyan barrelled into the Philippines in November, many of the inmates left the prison. They didn't exactly escape. In the chaos after the storm, the prison turned a blind eye as a few hundred inmates, along with most of the guards, walked out of the gates. They wanted to check on their homes and loved ones. Most of them returned after a few of weeks — and some brought their families back with them.

It’s a sign of how far from normal life still is in the hard-hit city of Tacloban.

Jing Geronimo, 34, says her family doesn't have anywhere to live, so they're staying in the prison for now. Her husband, Roberto Maayo, has been an inmate here for 11 years. Their whole relationship has played out over text messages and conjugal visits. Jing used to live with their 2-year-old son in a house not far from the prison. She and Roberto show me a grainy photo of it on their little knock-off Nokia phone.

It was a native Filipino hut, on stilts, with woven bamboo walls and a thatched roof. Roberto saved for five years to build the house for Jing, selling loose cigarettes and bags of chips out of a little shop in the prison.

A few months after the house was built, the typhoon blew it away.

“There was nothing left,” says Roberto, “so I asked them to come here. I told them let's just stay here, together.”

Roberto asked permission from the prison warden, a woman the inmates call Ma’am Merly, and she agreed, given the circumstances. Jing is pregnant; it was chaos back in Tacloban; and Roberto's prison block had been completely torn apart by the storm anyway.  Like about a dozen other inmates, Roberto gathered some debris and cobbled together a little shack. It's just big enough for the three of them to sleep on the floor.

“It's okay here, even if it isn't really okay, because no matter what, we have a place to live, even it's here in the prison,” says Jing. “I'm happy because I'm with my husband and we're together.”

For the first time in their lives, Jing, Roberto and their baby boy are living together as a family.

They know this won't last long, though. The prison is rebuilding the cell blocks. Workers are drilling tin roofing onto the rafters and hammering together new walls.

“It isn't like we can spend the rest of our lives here. I know that,” Jing says.

Once things get back to normal at the prison, the temporary village of debris will be taken down, and anyone who isn't actually incarcerated will have to move out.

But Jing's options for work and shelter outside in Tacloban won't be that much better. She's worried that she'll have to move far away to Manila, where she thinks there might be more work.

What she really wants to do, though, is to build another hut right outside the prison walls so she can see Roberto again, every day.

  • IMG_3115.JPG

    Credit: Aurora Almendral

    With most of the cell blocks in ruins at Leyte Prison outside Tacloban, many inmates are free to roam the grounds.

  • IMG_3153.JPG

    Credit: Aurora Almendral

    While the prison — and the rest of hard-hit Tacloban — are still in ruins, the prison warden has allowed some inmates to move their families onto the prison grounds.

  • IMG_3146.JPG

    Credit: Aurora Almendral

    Many of the prison’s cell blocks are in ruins after the storm. Inmates are now living on a makeshift village built of out debris.

  • IMG_3122.JPG

    Credit: Aurora Almendral

    Jing says she’s happy for the time that she and her young son get to spend living with Roberto on the prison grounds. She’s worried that once the prison is built, and she’s forced to leave the prison, she may have to search for work as far away as Manila.

  • IMG_3120.JPG

    Credit: Aurora Almendral

    A child sits in the blown-out window of the cell block where Roberto Maanyo used to be locked up.

  • IMG_3128.JPG

    Credit: Aurora Almendral

    An inmate brings in a sack of cement. The Leyte Provincial Prison was heavily damaged during Typhoon Haiyan, and is now in the process of being rebuilt.

  • IMG_3100.JPG

    Credit: Aurora Almendral

    Jing Geronimo, 34, used to live in a bamboo hut just outside the prison where her husband, Roberto Maanyo, is an inmate. Typhoon Haiyan blew the hut away, leaving Jing and her two-year-old son nowhere else to live but the prison.