YouTube's dancing prisoners denied new licence to thrill

With nearly 11 million hits, it is one of YouTube's most watched videos: 1,500 orange-suited inmates, plus one pony-tailed prisoner in mules and a halter-top, in a Filipino prison doing a perfectly choreographed version of the dance sequence of Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

The video of the dancing inmates at Cebu Detention and Rehabilitation Centre was uploaded to YouTube in July by Byron Garcia, a security consultant for the Cebu provincial government and the brother of the province's governor, Gwendolyn Garcia.

Michael Jackson's role is played by Crisanto Niere, with Wenjiel Resane playing "the girl"; both are on drug-trafficking charges. Most of the inmates in the video are on remand awaiting trial for alleged crimes such as murder, rape and drug trafficking.

The inmates carefully emulate every move from the Michael Jackson hit, their shoulders jerking zombie-style, heads swaying in time, clapping and swirling in a truly awesome display. One that needed a bigger audience, Mr Garcia reckoned.

The next step was to see if the prisoners would be allowed to perform at Sinulog, a popular street-music festival scheduled in Cebu next Sunday, saying it would add "something new to the traditional Sinulog presentation".

But Cebu city's mayor, Tomas Osmena, remains unmoved by the funky zombie dancing of the inmates. "I will not allow it even if Michael Jackson joins them," Mr Osmena told the Philippine News Agency. "In jail, the inmates can dance all they want."

The nine-day fiesta is organised by the Catholic Augustinian order to honour the infant Jesus with a solemn religious procession followed by a raucous street-party. It also includes a beauty pageant and a trade fair.

The Philippines is one of the most musical countries in the world: people walk around the streets singing happily in the normal course of the day, and Filipino bands are famous for their skill in mimicking top tunes.

Mr Garcia introduced dancing in April 2006 as part of a new rehabilitation programme at the prison in this resort city. Inmates now rehearse for hours each day and have performed dance versions of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" as well as several Village People tracks. In the plan proposed to Mr Osmena, to make sure none of the Thriller stars made a break for freedom, the show would be performed at the city's sports complex, and just 100 prisoners would be dancing, with a guard assigned to each detainee.

Mr Garcia had hoped that, by allowing the inmates to be in Sinulog, the city could showcase the success of its rehabilitation programme. "By showing these highly disciplined inmates, perhaps we might just be giving hope that Cebu is not just about the mardi gras, but rather, Cebu is about leadership and good governance," he said.

The prisoners were expected to be tough competition at the festival for the Lumad Basakonon group, which has dominated the free interpretation category of Sinulog for two years.