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'Thriller' prisoners prepare to make 'Electric Dreams' come true

  • Story Highlights
  • About 1,500 inmates at Philippines prison are forced to dance every day
  • One of their stars is a self-described "she-male" awaiting trial on meth charges
  • Prison boss says violence has ceased ever since dancing started
  • Accused mass-murderer inmate says dancing has taught him "love"
  • Next Article in World »
By Hugh Riminton
CNN
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CEBU, Philippines (CNN) -- The sea of orange moves with an urgent rhythm as music booms in the early morning light. The dancers twirl in unison, every movement carefully choreographed.

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Prisoners at the Cebu, Philippines, facility recently practiced a "Sister Act" performance.

But what's most striking about these dancers are that most are accused murderers, rapists and drug dealers. They dance their jig behind prison walls. They are led by a choreographer who is accused of mass murder. One of their biggest stars is a transsexual, awaiting trial on methamphetamine dealing charges.

Welcome to the Cebu Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines. Once infamous for its gang violence, the prison is now famous for its dancing prisoners. Their hard work has spawned one of the unlikeliest hits on the Internet -- a reworking of Michael Jackson's 1980s smash hit video "Thriller." Filmed by the prison boss, it has drawn more than 6 million hits on YouTube.

They've also posted several other dance videos with less fanfare, including performances of "Sister Act," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Radio Ga Ga."Video Watch the prisoners boogie down »

"We don't have dumbbells here. We don't have weights. We have dancing," prison overseer Byron Garcia told CNN.

And dance they do. Every able-bodied prisoner -- about 1,500 of them -- must dance. If they refuse, they lose certain privileges, mostly conjugal visits. Sometimes, the dancing occupies up to five hours a day. Garcia rejects claims he's abusing the prisoners' rights by forcing them to dance so many hours a day.

He says it gives them a renewed sense of worth and confidence, breaking them of their violent ways. He is convinced his prison is a model for prison authorities everywhere, an example of how to crack the plague of violent prison gangs.

"These men learned they can dance and still be men," he says. "It makes them work together, it makes them exercise and they learn self-esteem.

"They no longer feel like lowly criminals." A smile breaks his face. "Now," he says, "they feel like celebrity criminals."

Garcia took a gamble when he took over the prison three years ago. Gangs and corrupt guards ruled the prison. Serious violence broke out at least once a week. He sacked most of the guards and ordered the prisoners, first to march and then to dance.

"I had to ignore everything in the handbooks to do this," he says. "People in the United States tell me it couldn't work in their prisons." He shrugs: How can they know without trying it?

The prison boss says there has not been a violent incident in nearly a year and a half. "They are just not hostile anymore," he says.

Garcia himself has a hard-line pedigree in law and order. His father, Congressman Pablo Garcia, introduced the death penalty to the Philippines in the 1980s.

Many of his inmates could yet be sentenced to death if they ever make it to trial. Philippine justice moves so slowly that simply to be charged can feel like a life sentence. Most of the inmates here are hardcore suspects, facing murder, rape, robbery and serious drugs offenses.

But many could be innocent -- and many remain here, as many as 16 in a cell -- awaiting trial.

Leo Suico, who's accused of mass murder, says dancing means "we don't think of bad things." Fighting back tears, he says the experience has taught him "love" -- pure and simple.

That sentiment is echoed by other prisoners, including Wenjiell Resane. An accused methamphetamine dealer and self-described "she-male," Resane shares a single prison cell with a dozen transsexuals. She has been waiting three years for trial.

Resane is the star of the "Thriller" video in which more than 1,000 other prisoners took part.

"I tried being a performer before, but no one took any notice," Resane says with the mock bashfulness of the practiced celebrity. "Now, in jail, I have become a star."

The Michael Jackson role is performed with flair by 36-year-old Crisanto Niere, an accused crack dealer who has been waiting five years for trial.

He loves the dancing and laughs at his unlikely fame, but says the video has brought him a reward he once thought would be forever beyond his reach. His son, Christopher, has only known him as a prison inmate.

"He used to be so ashamed of me," says Niere. "Now when he goes to school, he tells everyone the dancer on the Internet is his father."

He adds, "It makes me proud that my son is proud of me."

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They are now practicing for their encore, a thank you and acknowledgement to their Internet audience. It is the 1980s hit "Electric Dreams," chosen by the prison boss.

"These people are behind prison bars," says Garcia, who admits he uploaded the "Thriller" video to YouTube. "But with the Internet, we all can be together in electric dreams." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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