Cebu’s dancing inmates featured in upcoming Netflix docu ‘Happy Jail’

CEBU CITY, Philippines – The famous dancing inmates of the Cebu Provincial and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) first went viral in 2007 after posting their choreography to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" on YouTube. But what happened to them after that?

A new Netflix documentary by Filipino American director Michele Josue, set for release on Wednesday, August 14, goes beyond the song and dance and digs deeper into the lives of those jailed in the maximum-security prison.

"Seeing the dancing inmates perform with such joy and unity, I felt that familiar Pinoy pride and immediately recognized that this extraordinary program was perfectly emblematic of the Filipino people and our love of music, dance, and performance," the Emmy-winning director said in a statement. 

But what was supposed to be a simple feature on the dancers inevitably turned into an in-depth look at the criminal justice system with President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war as the backdrop.

Only built to hold 1,500 inmates, facility saw its population skyrocket to almost 4,000 inmates only weeks into Duterte’s term.

"Our cameras were there when CPDRC was suddenly thrust into this new era, and its staff was overwhelmed with an influx of inmates and the pressure of it all," Josue said. "Over the next 3 years, we witnessed the jail change in meaningful ways."

The film also looks into the heated political drama between local rivals Gwen Garcia, who has just returned as Cebu's governor, and Hilario "Junjun" Davide III, who was governor during the filming.

Inmate-turned-consultant for the CPDRC Marco Toral, a controversial figure in Cebu society, is also followed closely in the film.

Josue previously won a Daytime Emmy in 2016 for her feature film Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine. Happy Jail will be available for streaming on Netflix worldwide. –

Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers Cebu and the Visayas for Rappler. He covers all news in the region, but is particularly interested in people stories, development issues and local policy making.