The deadly fire in Indonesia highlights systemic problems


JAKARTA, Indonesia – Overcrowding, mass escapes, protest riots, extremism and corruption: Indonesian prisons have long been a hotbed of problems. On Wednesday, it was a tragedy as fire broke through a Tangerang prison block on the outskirts of Jakarta, killing more than 40 and injuring twice as many. Authorities say their first investigation indicates a short circuit in the electrical network as the cause of the fire. Here’s a look at some of the issues the prison system has faced in recent years:


Tangerang Prison was built for 900 inmates, but currently has more than 2,000. In block C, where the fire broke out early Wednesday, there are primarily drug perpetrators. His 19 cells, intended for 40 prisoners, had more than three times that.

More than half of the prisoners in the Indonesian prison system were convicted in the country’s war on drugs. Last year, under an amnesty aimed at reducing the number while COVID-19 ransacked prisons at the start of the pandemic, the government released tens of thousands of people who had served at least two-thirds of their sentences.

According to the penitentiary department, there were 268,610 prisoners in Indonesian prisons, which were built for 132,107 people, in July.

An independent study conducted in 2018 by researchers from the University of Indonesia showed that there was only one officer for every 55 prisoners.


After Islamic extremists attacked the tourist island of Bali in 2002, when Jemaah Islamiyah militants bombed nightclubs, killing 202 people, mostly foreigners, Indonesian security forces went into widespread action, breaking the net and arresting hundreds.

But once in prison, the lack of close surveillance meant that they and other extremists were able to recruit more followers and direct supporters outside the walls.

Experts have noted that at least 18 former inmates have been involved in extremist cases in the last decade, and most have been radicalized in prison.

The trial of Aman Abdurrahman, who was sentenced to death in 2018, found that the radical clergy incited and directed several attacks by his followers, including a suicide bombing of Starbucks in Jakarta while he was in prison. Abdurrahman, who was serving a sentence related to terrorism, was able to communicate with his supporters from the outside through visitors and video calls.


Prison escapes have been common in recent years in Indonesia, where a lack of oversight, and sometimes crumbling structures, are combined to make escaping an attractive option for prisoners, sometimes en masse.

A year ago, a Chinese prisoner who was sentenced to death for drug trafficking tunneled his exit from Tangerang Prison using stolen tools over a six-month period. His body was found in the city a month later in what police called a suicide.

In 2017, in a prison in western Indonesia where there were frequent riots due to overcrowding, dozens of inmates managed to escape one night after the floods caused the wall to collapse. A few months earlier, dozens of others had fled during riots in which a prison block was set on fire. Most were recaptured in both cases.

At the time, the prison, built for 350 inmates, had 1,238 inmates.

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world, and several significant fugitives have taken advantage of the time of day to pray.

In 2018, more than 100 inmates overpowered the guards after they were released from their cells for evening prayer at the Lambaro Penitentiary in Aceh Province, and then rushed through holes in wire and iron bars they had cut in advance.

A year earlier, more than 440 prisoners had escaped from a penitentiary in neighboring Riau province, when they also took advantage of Muslim prayers on Friday.


The government recognizes there is a problem and plans to redirect its approach to drug perpetrators as part of the solution, said Reyhard Silitonga, head of correctional services at the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. He intends to start looking at drug perpetrators as addicts in need of treatment, not criminals, and focus on rehabilitation rather than imprisonment, he told the Associated Press.

Currently, out of 139,088 convicts in drug cases, 101,032 serve a sentence of less than 10 years for crimes involving only small amounts of narcotics.

He said redirecting drug users to rehabilitation programs would greatly reduce the number of people in prisons and alleviate most problems. If no solution is found, he predicted that the prison population could exceed 400,000 in the next five years.


A growing report from Bangkok.


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