Inside The Viral Craze That Inspired Netflix's Happy Jail

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
The video begins with the organ chords of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Men in orange suits gather in a courtyard. With precision, they snap into rows and begin dancing.
Flash mobs are nothing new. The twist to this routine? It took place in a maximum security prison in Cebu, Philippines.
Uploaded in YouTube’s early days in 2007, the video went viral and has since racked up 58 million views. In retrospect, it's no surprise this humanizing video was such a smash hit. Most of us don't readily associate prison with joy and dancing — this video defied expectations.
But how "happy" is this now-famous prison, really? Happy Jail, a five-part documentary series by Michele Josue, goes deep into the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC). Dropping on Netflix on August 14, the documentary series especially focuses on the CPDRC's controversial new security advisor, a former prisoner himself.
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But first, let's go back to 2007, when CPDRC's former security advisor Byron F. Garcia began the Dancing Inmates program. In the documentary, Garcia reveals that he was inspired to begin the program after a moving scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) plays an aria over the prison loudspeaker and stuns his fellow prisoners with beauty. Recreating the scene in Cebu, Garcia chose played Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" over the loudspeaker — and the inmates danced.
In the years since that 2007 video, Cebu's staged elaborate dances to a Queen medley, the Grease song "Grease Lightning," the theme of the Papal visit for the Pope's actual visit, and the music of Bruno Mars, among many others. Until 2010, Cebu's inmates also put on shows for the public. Often, relatives of inmates were in the stands.
The second episode of Happy Jail, "Everybody Needs a Second Chance," contains fascinating tidbits about how how these dances actually come together. For example, the choreographer chooses accused and convicted murderers to be lead dancers — he says thieves drop out too often.
CPDRC's dance program is an example of prison reform in action. Many of CPDRC's 1,600 prisoners aren't actually convicts, but are awaiting trial. Dance practice, which begins at 6 in the morning and lasts for four hours, fills up the men and women's days.
"Before the dancing, our problems were really heavy to bear. Dancing takes our minds away from our problems. Our bodies became more healthy...We are being rehabilitated in a good way," Crisanto Nierre told NPR in 2007.
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Eventually, Garcia left the prison to work with his sister, Gwendolyn, the current governor of the Cebu province and former warden of the Cebu prison.
When Garcia left in 2015, Cebu governor Hilario Davide III brought in a new security advisor: Marco Toral. In 2002, at the age of 36, Toral was arrested for drug trafficking. Originally sentenced to life in prison, Toral was released in 2009. As a former prisoner, Toral says he understands what the prisoners were experiencing better than anyone else. However, his presence stirs up controversy — and that's the real focus of Happy Jail.
Until Happy Jail, most documentaries about CPDRC only focused on the dancing inmates. Happy Jail is less concerned with spectacle, and more with daily life. The documentary exposes the prison's grislier side as a hub for drug trafficking, and how Toral's presence affects the drug trade.
"The CPDRC is known for dancing inmates. And it's also known for being a source of drugs," one prisoner says in Happy Jail.
Toral resigned in 2016, but not before giving Josue and her team unprecedented access into the prison to make Happy Jail's five episodes.
Ultimately, Happy Jail makes for a good a companion piece to the long-running Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black. Both contain nuanced portrayals of prisons — the people who live in them, and the people who lead them.
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