Review: 'Happy Jail'

"We’re known for the dancing inmates, but deep inside us, we’re rotting like there are termites inside"

In 2008, inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) in the Cebu province of the Philippines made international news when a video of them dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" became a viral hit. It wasn't just the impressive choreography that was inspirational. The video provided a hope that even in prison, people can find a creative outlet and some piece of joy that will bring meaning to their lives.

Not surprisingly, that video wasn't the most accurate representation of life at the center, which is the focus of a new five-part Netflix documentary entitled "Happy Jail." It begins in the wake of the 2016 national elections, which brought a new governor to the province. He replaced the head of the prison with Marco Toral, a former inmate of CPDRC turned prison consultant and "Happy Jail" uses his role at the prison as the lens for telling the story of a broken justice system.

Even before the 2016 election, the situation at the facility had been chaotic. The center is supposed to only detain suspects until they go to trial and are eventually released or sent to a permanent location. But thanks to a renewed crackdown on the drug trade and more than a bit of corruption, many of the CPDRC inmates have been there well past their expected release date. One prisoner had already been incarcerated for more than 15 years awaiting trial on a charge that would have only given him a four-year prison stint if convicted.

"Some of them are innocent, but have already served nine years here. That’s the Philippines"

The documentary is directed by Michele Josue, an Emmy award-winning Filipino-American director and the series deftly lures viewers into a complicated story by focusing on the efforts of consultant Marco Toral to make the confinement more humane for the prisoners. He creates a weekly event in which prisoner's families can spend the night in sleeping bags in the courtyard and often talks about how his incarceration makes it easier for him to understand the prisoners and what they need to survive.

He does make an impact at the facility, but his presence there is controversial and it doesn't correct the overwhelming corruption and violence that plagues that CPDRC. There are some scene that are difficult to watch and it makes you wonder why Toral agreed to the documentary in the first place. The jails in the Philippines are notorious for being overcrowded and sparse and while the situation at the CPDRC is likely better than what you'd find in some other prisons, the living conditions are pretty brutal.

There are any great solutions provided in "Happy Jail" and in fact, it can all seem pretty depressing. But it's also true that despite the violence and corruption, you'll find yourself becoming invested in the stories of some of the prisoners. Even the worst ones aren't that different than anyone else in society. They are looking for a bed, a decent meal and the chance to bring some meaning to their lives. Even though it's not always the easiest story to watch, "Happy Jail" is captivating and with just five 30-minute or so episodes, it's a quick watch.

If I have one complaint about "Happy Jail" is that while it is in English with English subtitles available, a couple of the interviews and segments with prisoners aren't translated or dubbed, so you won't know what they're saying. Still, none of those segments last more than a minute or so and it won't lessen the impact of the series.

"Happy Jail" is now streaming on Netflix.