Families on the Frontier: Incarceration, Reproductive Labor, and Peripheral Development in the Early Twentieth Century Philippines

by Dr. Karen Miller with research assistance provided by Stephen Pierre Paul.

LaGuardia student Stephen Pierre Paul worked under the supervision of Professor Karen Miller over the 2021-2022 academic year. This research work was supported by the CUNY Research Scholars Program (see also, CRSP). Dr. Miller, a historian, is writing a book chapter about the Iwahig Penal Colony, which was founded in 1904 when the Philippines was a U.S. colony. Mr. Pierre Paul assisted Dr. Miller by finding articles about the penal colony in a database of historical Southeast Asian newspapers. He downloaded over 50 articles, summarized them, and organized them for her. His work was invaluable because it helped provide Dr. Miller with details that make her study come to life. The following is an excerpt from the article that Dr. Miller is writing.


Dr. Boris Zakharov

Dr. Karen Miller

Karen Miller is Professor of History in the Social Science Department at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York (CUNY). Her book, Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit, was published by New York University Press in 2014. In 2021, the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning published an illustrated and abridged version of that book for distribution to union members of SEIU called How American City Leaders Built Segregated Neighborhoods while Disavowing Racism. She is working on an edited collection with Yumi Lee called the Prehistories of the War on Terror: A Critical Genealogy, which is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2023. She is currently working on a book called Internal Migration, Peripheral Settlement, and the Logics of Empire in the Philippines over the Long Twentieth Century. Her most recent peer-reviewed publication, is “’Thin, Wistful, and White’: James Fugate and Colonial Bureaucratic Masculinity in the Philippines, 1900-1938,” which appeared in the American Quarterly in 2019. Dr. Miller was a visiting scholar at the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan in 2010. In 2019, she received a Fulbright fellowship and was a visiting scholar at the Center for International Studies, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines in the Spring of 2020. She received a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies’ Community College Faculty Fellowship in 2020. She was the recipient of a Black Race and Ethnicity Studies Initiative grant from the City University of New York in 2022. Dr. Miller is a member of the Organization of American Historians’ Executive Board, which she has served on since 2022. She also holds an appointment in the Masters of Liberal Studies Program at the CUNY Graduate Center.


Bureau of Prisons, Catalogue of Products of the Industrial Division of Bilibid Prison and General Information Relative to the Bureau of Prisons (Manila: P. W. C. Press, 1927).

In 1927, at least 60 children (pictured above) attended school at the Iwahig Penal Colony. Iwahig was on the island of Palawan, about 360-miles away from Manila by steamer. The fathers of most of these children were “colonists,” the seemingly non-penal term that Bureau of Prisons officials used to describe men incarcerated at Iwahig. The fathers of some of these children, however, were no longer imprisoned – they had already served their sentences. Unlikely to have the resources to return to their hometowns these men were staying on at Iwahig with their families. Some worked as supervisors at the penal colony, which employed only 17 non-incarcerated workers at the time. Others may have held jobs in the nearby port town and provincial capital, Puerto Princesa. And all of them continued to farm the plots of land they had begun to cultivate as prisoners.1

The households of both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men availed themselves of the resources that Iwahig had to offer–supports for farming, a cooperative for the distribution of crops, free schooling for their children, and membership in a community that many had been part of for decades. While imprisoned, men were subject to strict and even unforgiving forms of discipline and control that women, children, and the formerly incarcerated did not face. All residents of Iwahig, however, had to negotiate rigid state dictates about where and how they could live, farm, and work. While Iwahig was a penal colony, it was also a site for the permanent resettlement of convicted and formerly incarcerated workers and for the women and children with whom they lived.

The article I am working on asks why incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men lived at Iwahig in single family homes alongside their female partners and children. At the time, the Philippines was a colony of the United States. In fact, the guerrilla war against U.S. occupation subsided the year before Iwahig was opened. What did the American colonial state hope to gain from this arrangement? How did Iwahig’s prisoners and non-incarcerated residents understand their experiences and fight to assert control over their lives? How did their struggles reshape the power they confronted? How did people indigenous to Palawan, the island where Iwahig was sited, respond to the confiscation of their ancestral lands, the displacement they faced, and the the penal colony, itself. And finally, why is this important?

In my work, I demonstrate that this program, while small, was a model for the kind of development that the Philippine colonial state aspired to spread well beyond the penal colony. In this context, “development” is a term that marks state efforts to transform spaces that had remained largely independent of colonial control into sites of extraction. As I show here, bureaucrats used incarcerated workers to confiscate land from indigenous populations, build infrastructures for commercially oriented production, and provide labor for the expansion of these practices. Iwahig should be understood as part of a larger colonial effort to remake spaces in the Philippines that sat outside of the colony's dominant political economies into places that were both controlled and disciplined by capital. These practices were enclosures, a term that describes a process called “accumulation by dispossession,” whereby governments create laws and policies to help actors they favor (elites) confiscate land from indigenous people.

Iwahig was a prison, which means it was not a site for large-scale private investment or speculation. Instead, its development was built around the idea that the state-sponsored migration of metropolitan populations onto family-based farms in outlying territories could change relations of power in those spaces. This was a popular conviction at the time. The United States' homesteading program, which provided a model for some of the Philippine laws that established these programs, for example, brought mostly white settlers, organized into families, onto indigenous territory as a means for claiming and ultimately controlling those spaces.

In the Philippines, areas targeted for development were in the southern and western part of the archipelago, as well as in mountainous regions in the North. Their populations were either majority Muslim or Animist. Known as the Philippines' Indigenous People (IPs) today, these religious affiliations marked their historical independence from colonial control. Their ancestors were never Christianized because they staved off Spanish domination. Many of these groups were subsistence-oriented and practiced forms of subsistence, shifting cultivation. Others were led by formidable Sultanates who were powerful players in Southeast Asian maritime trade and slave raiding of Spanish settlements into the nineteenth century.2

I show that penal colonies were designed to expand colonial power into “frontier” zones. Indeed, Iwahig's incarcerated population was not local. Like their female partners and wives, men convicted of crimes were from far away islands. Mostly Christianized, the men who were incarcerated at Iwahig had been transported to the site from Bilibid, the Philippines' main penitentiary in Manila. They were all from provinces near the capital. Iwahig was far away from their homes, located on an island that the Spanish and then the American colonial state targeted for commercial agricultural production.

The Iwahig Family

The children pictured above lived at Iwahig because, under the American colonial state, the Bureau of Prisons had allocated considerable resources to a program that located the female partners of the men incarcerated at the penal colony, offering them free passage to Palawan. It is important to understand this program was a state response to prisoners' protest. From 1904 to 1907, the first three years that Iwahig was opened, incarcerated men fought hard against conditions at the penal colony. Prisoners faced grueling labor demands mixed with dangerous food scarcity that bordered on outright starvation, high rates of disease, and an undrained swamp. Over its first seven months, 23 incarcerated men died, representing about 10 percent of the total population – by May 1905, 255 men were incarcerated there.3 They suffered from malaria, dysentery, and beriberi, a disease caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency – because prisoners were surviving mostly on rice.4

Despite these conditions, by the end of 1906, incarcerated workers had built much of the physical infrastructure for the penal colony. These included sheds, warehouses, and furniture, as well as carts, sleds, and plows. Workers also constructed several large buildings and cleared a significant amount of land for plantation agriculture – both for consumption at Iwahig and for regional markets. They had also grown enough “quick-return” crops to significantly diversify the diets of penal colony residents, reducing the cost of rations and the incidence of illness dramatically. As construction proceeded, Prison Bureau officials remained extremely optimistic about the project, blithely describing the soil around the Iuhuig River as almost magically fertile, ready to be “adapted to the growth of... nearly everything that can be grown in the Philippine Islands.”5

Prisoners' protests pushed authorities to adopt new policies and practices. In 1907, Iwahig's American superintendent, John White, pushed for the passage of a new law that allowed for and funded the migration of the wives and families of men who were serving long sentences. He argued that this would be the best solution for the “difficulties” the Bureau was contending with. Prisoners, he predicted, would be “satisfied with their lot when they can have their people among them.” Furthermore, the Act allowed former prisoners to “continue to till the soil if they so desired” and to “be retained in the employ of the government at salaries as long as they prove satisfactory.”6 In a short article, syndicated widely in the United States, White captured the relationships between penal colonization, colonial expansion, and the invention of a distinctive kind of migrating, procreative family clearly. He argued that “a government which has vast areas of virgin land to be exploited,” like the American state in the Philippines, should assign penal colonies “an important place in [its] prison scheme.” Carceral transportation, he suggested, was an important tool for colonial expansion. But this movement of unfree labor to spaces targeted for development would not be enough. These workers would have to settle and reproduce in order to ensure continued extraction and guarantee the displacement of indigenous populations. The movement of “marriageable women” to these carceral spaces, he claimed, was the lynchpin for this project. These women would “put the seal of permanency on [the] settlement.”7 White suggested that these migrating women’s presence and reproductive labor would contribute to what he saw as the best kind of development, allowing the state and private capital to reach into areas that had never come under the direct control of either the Spanish or the American colonial state. In order for this project to be successful, he suggested, these migrating families would also have to embrace of the colonial, hierarchical, and civilizing logics that legitimated this project, so that they could become, perhaps ironically, agents of the state that incarcerated them.

Ultimately, Administrators in the Philippines attempted to create a distinctive kind of family at Iwahig that, they believed, was a foundational piece of the infrastructure of colonial expansion. Colonial administrators imagined that members of an Iwahig family would be severed from their extended kin networks by physical distance. They would not have access to the thicker sets of relations that usually animated rural life in the archipelago. In the minds of administrators, these families would be subject to state control, to which they were already extremely vulnerable since one of their two adult members was incarcerated when the family was formed. The colonial state hoped to build on these vulnerabilities as it reimagined peripheral space and frontier development.


1Bureau of Prisons, Catalogue of Products of the Industrial Division of Bilibid Prison and General Information Relative to the Bureau of Prisons (Manila: P. W. C. Press, 1927).

2In the regions where the Spanish built and maintained their colonial control, their domination was closely linked to Catholic conversion. Nilo S. Ocampo, “A History of Palawan,” in Palawan at the Crossroads: Development and the Environment on a Philippine Frontier, ed. James F. Eder and Janet O. Fernandez (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1996), 23–37.

3White, “Report to the Director of the Bureau of Prisons in Manila.”

4Beriberi crises, which were rampant in the Philippines at the time, were indications of dismal working conditions, combining punishing labor regimes and paltry diets, conditions that American rule had exacerbated. See Theresa Ventura, “Medicalizing ‘Gutom’ Hunger, Diet, and Beriberi during the American Period on JSTOR,” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints Volume 63, no. 1 (March 2015): 39–69.

5Wolfe, “Annual Report of the Bureau of Prisons,” 309.

6“Families of Colonists,” The Cablenews, Manila, Thursday, September 26, 1907.

7“Should Convicts Be Allowed to Wed?,” New Castle News, October 26, 1907.