The Philippines war on drugs has gained international infamy in the wake of its terrible body count. But as Clarke Jones writes, we also need to remember the lives and circumstances of the people caught up in the middle of it — people like Jaybee Sebastian.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s tough stance on drug crime drowns out many of the social aspects underpinning the problem in his country. While we’ve heard a lot about the extrajudicial killings, very little is known about the personal circumstances of those swept up in the drug war.

Over the past five years, I have got to know the former head of the Sigue Sigue Commando (SSC) gang – Jaybee Sabastian. For those not familiar with Jaybee, he is embroiled in Duterte’s drug war due to his alleged involvement in a prison-led narcotics ring with links to the former Secretary of Justice, Leila de Lima. De Lima is accused of funding her 2016 senatorial campaign from drug funds raised from inside New Bilibid Prison (NBP).

My focus here, however, is neither on the drug trade, nor on the entrenched corruption in the Philippines prison system. Instead, it is on Jaybee’s personal life and how his circumstances led him to where he is today.

To get to know Jaybee, I met up with him every time I visited the maximum-security compound of NBP in Manila. I enjoyed talking to him and sharing TW tea on his antique table and tea set gifted to him by Chinese inmates. This was a safe place to talk and I never felt threatened by him, even though he had a violent past and a fierce fighting reputation. I liked him regardless and was impressed by his keen interest in falconry – he had eight birds – and his other daily past-times in the heavily overcrowded and hostile conditions of NBP.

Jaybee was intelligent, creative and resourceful. He ran a TV recording studio and probably had the most comfortable (air-conditioned) cell in the prison. In fact, it was cleaner and roomier than the prison warden’s office. Jaybee commanded these privileges because he was the leader (or bosyo) of the SSC gang, the third-largest out of 12 in the jail and prison systems.

Jaybee was convicted for hijacking and kidnapping, not drug offences. He was sentenced on two counts of Reclusion Perpetua, the highest penalty since the abolition of the death sentence in the Philippines. A person sentenced with Reclusion Perpetua usually gets 20 to 40 years.

Survival is never certain over the length of such a sentence, and Jaybee knows this well. He was recently stabbed in a riot in his current temporary accommodation, building 14. This is an isolation unit for high-profile and problematic offenders. He has been under threat here because he allegedly informed de Lima about 19 Chinese drug lords and a rival gang leader, Herbert Colangco, who are also currently housed in building 14.

Jaybee doesn’t dwell on his situation. His past is well behind him now. After his father died in 2014, he realised that NBP is all he will see from now on. As he told me, although he misses his real family dearly, prison has become his home and his gang is now his family.

Jaybee still remembers his first few minutes behind bars in a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) lock-up when his father handed him a cigarette and told him “huwag kang iiyak ha” (Do not cry okay?) But, as he lit his own cigarette, it was his father that started crying. During the first few weeks, his father visited him every day, but this slowed down when his father became critically ill. When his father died, Jaybee was not allowed to attend the funeral.

He was motivated to tell me his story because, as he put it, he “doesn’t want others to follow in the same footsteps”. Jaybee knows too well the problematic life of crime. For street gangs, it is highly prestigious to either die on the street fighting for their gang or to serve prison time in the name of their gang.

Jaybee claims he never really joined a gang, but that “the gang joined him”. He grew up in Tondo, a well-known slum area of Manila. Most kids that join street gangs in Tondo have parents also involved in gang activities. Tondo is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and is known for its high crime rate and for being one of the poorest and most underdeveloped areas of the Philippines. Even the police in Tondo are involved in gang activities, either as part of a gang or to protect the activities of the gang in exchange for money.

While Jaybee’s father had great influence over the Tondo police because of his fierce standover reputation, none of the rest of his family were involved in gangs or had ever done prison time. Nonetheless, his father was once confined on two counts of murder for one week inside a police lock-up until he allegedly paid off the victims’ family for only 6,000 pesos. He was subsequently released.

His father’s bodyguards, SSC gang members, were not so lucky, with most of them incarcerated at one time or another. When Jaybee first entered jail, they taught him how to work the system so that, even before Jaybee stepped into a jail cell, there was one already waiting for him. The bodyguards’ respect for Jaybee was due not only to honouring his father, but also because of Jaybee’s street reputation.

Jaybee considers himself lucky. Most street gang leaders are killed or imprisoned. If imprisoned, not all remain leaders. As he told me, they “go back to zero” in reputation, unless they prove themselves worthy.

Jaybee claims he’s committed many violent acts, although I never saw that side of him. He felt great remorse for his criminal past but the street was his main education, reaching only third year college. He grew up with violence and saw his first murder at the hands of his father when he was just seven years old. Today, Jaybee still lives by the SSC’s motto: “do or die”.

With all his notoriety, I asked Jaybee if he was to start again, what would he do differently? Strangely, he sees imprisonment as his life’s greatest blessing – a blessing in terms of the lessons and values he’s learned about life while inside. Yet, he still yearns for a free life and misses a lot of things on the outside – family gatherings (birthdays, Christmas, New Year), friends, walking on the streets, riding a bike and driving a car. Most of all, he misses feeling safe.

Jaybee’s story is one of thousands, perhaps millions. Without at least acknowledging the human and social dimension, Duterte’s goal of eradicating the drug problem will never be reached.

Dr Clarke Jones is a deradicalisation expert and project leader of the Australian Intervention Support Hub, in the School of Regulation and Global Governance, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.