MANILA (AFP) - A sex, drugs and bribery scandal at the Philippines' main prison, where a raid uncovered drug lords "living like kings" in luxury cells with stripper bars and jacuzzis, has shocked a country inured to tales of official corruption.
The revelations were headline news Tuesday, a day after police commandos swooped on the infamously crowded Bilibid prison complex to verify reports drug rings were operated from behind bars.
Police found methamphetamine or "ice", cash, inflatable sex dolls, a stripper bar and a jacuzzi spread across 20 air-conditioned "villas" built for convicted drug dealers, according to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.
"The military should take over the prison, and all the people involved from top to bottom must be fired," Dante Jimenez, founder of the Manila-based watchdog group Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, told AFP.
"It's unfair that even after conviction, we're still not sure that justice has been served," added Teresita See, head of the Manila-based Movement for the Restoration of Peace and Order.
De Lima admitted after the raid on Bilibid, a sprawling suburban Manila complex built for 8,900 inmates but currently housing 23,000, that the drug convicts were "living like kings".
They had the use of structures with marble-tiled bathrooms and hot showers, and access to mobile telephones and computers.
One room was stocked with an expensive whisky brand and another had a safe containing expensive watches and a stack of dollar bills.
The raid also turned up a small concert stage with rock music instruments and a room with an elevated platform, strobe lights and a mirror ball where police said strippers smuggled into the jail compound performed.
De Lima told reporters Tuesday the privileged prisoners each had two million pesos (S$58,510) in cash in their pockets during the raid.
"When you are summoned (by prison officials), you must have cash on hand, especially now that it's Christmas," she added.
Bureau of Corrections chief Franklin Bucayu insisted Tuesday that his government agency was unaware of the extent of the structures.
"It's like a maze, like a tunnel. When you enter you'll get lost because there are many people inside, many partitions. You'll need a guide," he added.
"It's only now that we're zeroing on it. Our task is to reform the system," he said, adding the luxury accommodation would be dismantled.
President Benigno Aquino's spokesman Herminio Coloma told reporters Tuesday: "Secretary de Lima is conducting a thorough investigation and all those responsible will be punished." However, both See and Jimenez alleged the government had long known about the problems and was only acting now to correct it.
"It's not just a drugs problem. It also concerns kidnappers. The masterminds and the financiers inside... have direct access to the remnants of their gang outside" who continue to kidnap people, See said.
Jimenez, whose brother was murdered by a drug dealer now serving time at Bilibid, said endemic corruption in the prison system allowed prison officials to trade privileges for cash.
Convicts with cash are also regularly released for one night or even an entire weekend at a time, he alleged.
"In one case the inmate was taken to a hospital suite, where he received high-class prostitutes." Jimenez also said that in some provincial jails, convicts were at times freed to carry out contract killings.
The abuses highlight official corruption and the wide divide between rich and poor. The remaining prisoners, mostly petty criminals, are crammed in squalid cells.
Ordinary Filipinos took to social media to mock what they described as their government's ineptitude.
"Prison life: It's more fun in the Philippines," Twitter user EDD K. Usman microblogged, using a play on the country's tourism slogan.
"Why is (Corrections chief Bucayu) still there? Where does he get the gall?" added Twitter user Dylan Castro.