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Inmates' dance routines produce a 'Thriller' hit on YouTube

Inmates at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines performed Michael Jackson's "Thriller" last week. (YouTube)

CEBU, Philippines -- Behind thick stone walls topped by electrified razor wire, one of cyberspace's most unlikely hits is warming up as the rest of Cebu stirs from sleep.

Pockets of inmates stretch and practice their latest moves. Then the morning workout gets underway in earnest in the exercise yard of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center.

In their identical orange prison uniforms, up to 1,500 inmates march and clap in unison as they perform precision dance routines with the Village People's "In the Navy" and "YMCA" pounding from six well-worn black speakers.

And why not? Their version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" had been watched nearly 4.4 million times on YouTube as of yesterday, uploaded by Byron Garcia, the Cebu provincial security consultant who came up with the idea of adding structure to poorly attended exercise sessions.

Inmates with arms covered in tattoos and baby-faced men who might have been gang members on the outside gyrate next to one another. They all seem to be enjoying themselves or at least taking pride as their sandals and tennis shoes slap in unison on the gray concrete. They laugh when they screw up, applaud when they get a new sequence right.

Forty-four female inmates, held in a separate wing, join in for "I Will Follow Him" from the movies "Sister Act," which is among several other songs posted on YouTube. Ten have at least 100,000 hits each.

"If I was not in prison, I would not be famous," said Wenjiel Resane, 35, the male inmate who plays the role of the girlfriend in "Thriller" and is a featured dancer in other songs.

Resane, a ponytailed former pizza chef, shares Cell 47 with 11 other openly gay inmates. Already in prison three years awaiting trial on drug charges, he puts on lipstick and makeup for a television interview.

"Before . . . we just get our food and go back to our cell, and if we don't have anything to do we just talk," Resane told a reporter who visited Wednesday. "But it is different now. Every day we are very busy preparing to dance for our upcoming shows. We are very proud of what we have done."

The prison, mostly for inmates with sentences of under three years or those awaiting trial, sits atop a hill. More than 300 are facing murder charges.

Crisanto Nierre, who plays Jackson's role in "Thriller," finds his new fame bittersweet. Relatives as far away as Sweden, Denmark, and Dubai have excitedly watched him on YouTube.

A fan of Jackson's music since he was in a dance troupe in high school, Nierre, 36, carefully laid out the orange-and-black outfit made for his performances, smoothing out every wrinkle.

"I hope that all the people who see us will be happy in knowing that we, despite being prisoners, we were able to do this," said Nierre, in prison five years awaiting trial on drug charges.

With the court system overworked, officials have been trying to ease overcrowding and brutal conditions in prisons. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo once said a life sentence in a Philippine prison was worse than death.

Inmates say that is how it used to be, with a fight or some other violent incident breaking out an average of once a week.

"I wanted a program where everyone would exercise an hour a day," Garcia said. "One day, I saw these waves of orange people [in the exercise yard]. I thought it looked very nice."

The goal was something the inmates could consider an accomplishment and that would teach camaraderie and teamwork.

First came marching to the cadence of a drum 15 months ago. Then Garcia chose one of his favorite songs, Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Village People standards followed, with the guidance of a choreographer. It takes about a week to work out individual sections of a new song, another week to pull them together.

The first video that Garcia posted was of a challenging algorithm march. It generated only 400 hits in eight months on YouTube.

"Thriller" followed less than a month ago. It was an instant hit, averaging 300,000 views per day at its peak.

Garcia says it been a year since the last fight. The cells, while cluttered with the meager possessions of up to 17 inmates in each one, are neat and clean. Shouts of "Good morning, sir" greet visitors.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said officials will look to encourage replication of the program at other prisons.

"These people may have their lives enhanced by something which removes their minds from the conditions they're in," Gonzalez said. "It might help in their reformation. That's good."

Garcia, a member of a wealthy family, carries something of an imperial air. Smoking is banned in the prison, but he puffs away, a guard thrusting out a coffee cup when he's ready to douse a butt.

Critics say he forces the inmates to perform, an allegation the prisoners deny. About 100 mostly older or ill prisoners opt out of the exercises, staying in their cells. Garcia said those who participate get an extra afternoon snack and are sharing in recent income for their performances.

A $35,000 donation followed a performance at the province's recent Founding Day celebrations. Each inmate received $22 of the gift, deposited into a prison passbook account; the rest went to the province to defray the costs of incarceration.