A Happy Jail for Happy Inmates
Everybody Needs a Second Chance
A Free Man
No Dance Killing, Man
Back in 2007, a Philippine prison dance went viral on YouTube. Back then I was 19 and remember a colleague showed me the video moments before working a night shift on the bar, only to see that very same clip pop up all over the place in the following weeks. Unbeknownst to us then, this prison flash mob would go on to gain over 58 million views of YouTube and be a worldwide sensation. Fast forward 12 years and the world is a very different place, with Philippine President Duterte famously declaring war on drugs and tackling the drug epidemic in the country head-on, turning his attention on the prisons across the country.
This ultimately serves as the backdrop for Netflix’s latest prison documentary series, Happy Jail. Focusing on the rehabilitation of prisoners and determination from authorities to create a happy prison with happy inmates, the documentary begins with a surprisingly optimistic viewpoint. With former inmate Marco Tarol in charge, the 1500 inmates find themselves surprisingly at peace, with a distinct lack of fighting thanks to their shared passion for dance and numerous benefits awarded to them, courtesy of the relaxed, but fair, administration.
From here, the documentary slowly sours into something far more provocative and poignant, as Duterte’s drug war causes serious pressures on Tarol’s administration, consequently building toward a dramatic finale that sees the prison foundation changed forever. There’s a consistent narrative that plays out throughout the episodes too and all of this intertwines some thought provoking themes around the power of dance, drugs and politics in a way that never feels preachy or patronizing.
Of course, there’s a lot of other prison documentaries on Netflix and if you’re looking for something to break the trend and showcase something truly original, you’ll be left a little disappointed here. Happy Jail sticks to a lot of the same conventional tropes found in other documentary series like this, including face to face interviews, archival news footage and fly-on-the-wall shots from inside the prison. Across the five episodes we meet various different inmates too and learn more about the hierarchical nature of the prison, with dance playing a key role in rehab for these men and women.
It’s been well documented that dancing releases endorphins – the feel-good, natural drug our body produces – and this idea of happy prisoners living in a happy prison is an interesting one, an idea that’s ultimately explored right down to its core toward the end of the show where a shocking announcement regarding the dance program sees many inmates take a turn for the worst. I won’t go into details over what happens for spoiler purposes, but seeing inmates shedding tears and casually discussing the possibility of hangings inside the prison is certainly eye-opening and shocking.
Happy Jail is not the most original documentary series out there, nor does it really showcase anything unique beyond its exploration of the prison behind the 2007 viral video. There’s enough content here to make for an enjoyable series nonetheless but whether this has the legs to be a memorable addition to the glut of other prison documentaries out there remains to be seen. Netflix’s latest documentary is well worth checking out though, especially if you’re a fan of prison documentaries, with a short enough run-time to entice you to binge-watch the entire series.
Verdict - 7/10