PALO, PHILIPPINES – Nearly half of the detainees who escaped from a flooded jail at the height of Typhoon Haiyan have returned, many after helping their families deal with the storm’s aftermath.
There were nearly 600 detainees at the Leyte Provincial Jail when the typhoon, one of the strongest ever to make landfall, flattened dozens of towns across the islands of Leyte and Samar on Nov. 8.
The winds ripped off the roof of the jail, which houses detainees who are on trial, while gushing water from the mountains sent flash floods into the isolated complex near the ruined coastal town of Palo.
Guard Fidencio Abrea said all of the detainees escaped as head-high water forced them to clamber up the jail’s bars and then over into stormy freedom, with no roof to contain them.
Abrea said the guards were themselves sheltering from the howling wind and powerful rains, so did not notice the mass jailbreak.
But he said 251 prisoners had come back, and were now being housed in a section of the complex that suffered minor damage.
Returnees interviewed said their immediate concern after escaping was to check on or help loved ones, and that they came back because they did not want to ruin their chances of being exonerated at trial.
“I returned because I want my freedom to be legal,” said Renato Comora, 47, who is on trial for murder.
Comora said he initially went to his wife and six children in the town of Dulag about 30 km away.
“My family is OK, there are no casualties but my house is totally destroyed,” he said inside the jail compound as other inmates milled around or were cooking on soot-blackened pots using firewood.
“I just wanted to make sure that my family was safe. After that, I returned on my own because I don’t want to live the life of a fugitive.”
Oldarico Raquel, 36, who is on trial for attempted murder, said he also escaped because he wanted to see his family.
His house was destroyed and he helped put up makeshift shelters for his family and relatives before returning to the jail, where he and 17 other inmates were packed in one cell.
Danilo Tejones, 51, who is on trial for rape, said he returned because he was innocent of the charge.
“After escaping, I helped my family harvest rice for three days before I returned,” he said.
“I could have stayed away but I decided to come back because I am innocent of the charge. I want my case to be finished so that I can get free legally.”
Jessie Abalos, 32, said he escaped so that he could go and help his 60-year-old mother rebuild their home in the town of Tolosa.
“Our house has been blown away. So I helped my mother put up a temporary shelter, then I returned,” said Abalos, who is facing drug charges.
Asked why he had returned, he said he was afraid of living a life as a fugitive.
Jail officials said prisoners are returning directly to the compound or just presenting themselves to a prison van that drives around the disaster zones looking for the detainees.
Palo and the nearby provincial capital of Tacloban remain scenes of near complete chaos, two weeks after the storm that has left nearly 7,000 people dead or missing.
Guard Abrea said returnees would have the court hearings of their cases speeded up, giving the innocent a chance to be set free more quickly.
But those who did not return by a certain date would be formally declared as “escapees.”
“Once they are declared as escapees, they will be hunted down,” he said.