CEBU, Philippines — More than 1,500 Philippine inmates at a maximum security prison on Saturday performed a Michael Jackson tribute for the public with a dance routine that has become a global Internet hit.

Hundreds of spectators arrived at the jail to see the convicts, including murderers and drug-traffickers, put on the show two days after the music icon collapsed and died.

One by one the performers, wearing their prison-issue saffron uniforms, filed into the fenced-off exercise yard at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, where officials had hung a picture of the star.

The event began with a prayer for Jackson before singing and dancing to his hit “We Are the World”, which he co-wrote with Lionel Richie to raise funds for famine victims in Ethiopia.

They then went on to perform to two other Jackson ballads, “Ben” and “I’ll Be There”, before taking positions for their popular dance routine based on the singer’s megahit video “Thriller”.

The inmates’ four-minute synchronised performance first aired on the video sharing website YouTube two years ago, and has since gained a cult following, generating more than 23 million hits so far.

Officials at the prison also said they had been told Jackson himself had even seen it.

Choreographer Byron Garcia, a prison consultant and the brains behind the dance exercise, said he was shocked by Jackson’s death at the age of 50 and that many of his wards were grief-stricken.

“Without MJ, the inmates would never have become world-renowned. That is why Michael Jackson is a God to them,” Garcia told AFP. “Inmates had hoped that one day, he’ll come to dance with them.”

He said the prisoners had performed the routine for visiting tourism officials on Thursday afternoon, just hours before Jackson died.

Jackson’s music served to help the facility in rehabilitating the inmates, Garcia said.

“Music is the language of the soul, and dancing is a form of positive expression,” he said as press photographers jostled for positions. “I am sad. Forty years ago, I learned singing his songs.”

Inmate Michael Carunngay, 31, a former drug trafficker, said: “We are sad that Michael Jackson passed away because he was our inspiration and the reason why we have found fame.”

Millions of fans around the world have held tributes to the “King of Pop” who died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles.

Tourists had flocked to the prison hours before the performance started at 3.00pm (0700 GMT) Saturday, with one official saying an unusual number of people had been signing in.

The video has become such a big hit that the inmates have themselves become tourist attractions, with visitors having their pictures taken with them after each performance.

They have also performed the dance for government officials and the Archbishop of the Catholic church in Cebu.

On the Net:
Philippine prisoners perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”: