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[OPINION] Behind Bars: A Glimpse Into Indonesian Prison Life

I had been amused by tales of life within the Indonesian prison system before. The stories of overcrowded cells where only the people with enough money can buy themselves access to the beds appear almost as cautionary stories, designed to instil discipline in the minds of children, warning them of the dangers criminal life can bring. If anything, it was a story I needed to see with my own eyes.

At last, on the 26th of October, I gained access inside. 

As a blonde foreigner, I braced myself for the chanters of the kind most Indonesian school boys would holler when I encountered them. However, this time, it was not school boys, but rather imprisoned felons. After the standard security clearance, I arrived with a degree of nervousness to find what looked like a sedentary school class sitting on the floor with orange vests patiently waiting for us. To my relief, they were, obviously, much more interested in their upcoming legal process than an uninteresting bule like myself.

Before my visit, I had looked forward to the opportunity to get a glimpse into Indonesian prison life, to delve beneath the façade of the intimidating prison building that bears witness to a parallel world within. Here the inmates find themselves, quite literally, behind bars, surrounded by foreboding watchtowers and the grim visage of barbed wire. The thought of confinement within those walls sends a shiver down my spine, and my heart goes out to those who endure such a fate.

Being a human rights student, I did my best to evaluate Indonesian prison life through the lens of a human rights perspective, for human rights and the world behind prison walls are regrettably frequent adversaries. Indeed, the governing body for prisons in Indonesia is, appropriately, the Ministry Of Law and Human Rights.

My assessment, I must admit, has left me with a sombre impression.

Expectedly, it is the overcrowding of prisons that stands as a harrowing testament to the abject neglect of human rights. Swollen far beyond their intended capacity, these institutions are nothing short of ticking time bombs.1 The fire that consumed Tangerang Prison, where 49 prisoners were burned alive, is only one of many recent disturbing examples of evidence of systemic failures within the Indonesian state apparatus, and its criminal code.2

Having been a trade union representative in the Swedish criminal system for four years, my eyes are trained to spot safety deficiencies in the workplace. Perhaps the most glaring safety deficiencies in Indonesian prisons is the stark disparity between the number of staff and the sizable inmate population. It is a disturbing equation, where the risk of inmates overpowering or causing harm to the outnumbered prison staff looms ominously overhead. The more than 100 prisoners who made their daring escape after a prison riot in Aceh is a reminder of the perils posed by overcrowding.3

Ensnared within its punitive drug legislation, Indonesia finds its prisons overflowing with non-violent drug offenders.4 I do wonder if the lawmakers believe such severe measures truly yield the desired results when it is obvious that the prisons are in a disastrous state. Could a more enlightened approach, rooted in rehabilitation and reintegration, not stand as a more convincing solution to this challenge, both economically and morally?

These are the rather unsettling quandaries that beg for answers in the shadowed corridors of Indonesian political power. Alas, my confidence in the Indonesian political establishment to solve this issue is meagre, seeing how unaffected by it they are. It seems that drug reform stands as an essential remedy to relieve the chronic overcrowding plaguing not only Indonesian prisons, but prisons all over the world. In my own observations on this vital struggle, in many ways led by Indonesian civil society, I am genuinely impressed by the people who combat this issue. This struggle, though marked by its disparities and daunting challenges, appears essential for the safeguarding of prisoners’ human rights. Lest we forget, within those prison walls, sleeping on the floor, they remain humans deserving of their rights. [*]

Andreas Johansson

From Gothenburg, Sweden. Currently enrolled in the Master of Human Rights program at the University of Gothenburg, and Andreas is passionate about advancing human rights and social justice.

Footnote:

  1. Novian, R. et al., (2018), Strategies to Reduce Overcrowding in Indonesia: Causes, Impacts, and Solutions, Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR) [Preprint]. doi:https://icjr.or.id/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Strategies-to-Reduce-Overcrowding-in-Indonesia.pdf. ↩︎
  2. Llewellyn, A., (2021), Why are Indonesian prisons so dangerous?, Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/30/why-are-indonesian-prisons-so-dangerous (Accessed: 27 November 2023). ↩︎
  3. Ibid ↩︎
  4. Ibid ↩︎

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