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[OPINION] Unpacking the Tangerang Overcrowding Situation from a Human Rights Perspective

Introduction

The decision to limit an individual’s freedom as a response to criminal behavior necessitates a careful balance between prioritizing public safety and recognising the fundamental rights associated with personal dignity inherent in every human being.1 Prisons and correctional facilities in some countries are characterized by underfunding, understaffing and extreme overcrowding, which often lead to inhuman and deficient living arrangements.2 Prisoners are usually a voiceless and forgotten group on the margins of society, often coming from minority groups, struggling with mental illness, or contending with substance abuse.3 Considering the vulnerability of this group, it is crucial to analyze the environment inside prisons from a human rights perspective.

Arguably, the most prominent challenge confronting prison systems today is the issue of overcrowding, a significant factor leading to substandard prison conditions worldwide with potentially deadly consequences.4 Indonesia is facing an onerous challenge within its penal system, housing 276,000 prisoners and detainees in facilities originally designed for a maximum of 132,107 as of 2022, resulting in a harsh and sometimes life-threatening environment.5 In the previous year, 2021, this deadly environment materialized into a tragic reality when 49 prisoners lost their lives in a fire at the overcrowded Tangerang Prison, located not far away from the capital.6 This article will analyze the Tangerang Prison fire from a human rights perspective, addressing potential human rights violations and comparing the Tangerang prison’s conditions to international prison standards.

Background

At 01:45, September 8, 2021, the fire started and raged for just over an hour. The blaze erupted while most inmates were sleeping and affected Block C the worst.7 A police investigation determined it was the faulty installation of an electric cable which was designed to respond to short circuits, which it subsequently failed to do, that precipitated the outbreak of the fire. Moreover, the installation was made by an inmate lacking expertise in electrical matters.8 The rapid escalation of the fire meant that by the time the guards were alerted to the situation, it had already spread extensively. This resulted in insufficient time to unlock all cells, tragically leaving some inmates trapped in the inferno.9 Tangerang Prison, initially designed for a capacity of 600 inmates, accommodated over 2,000 individuals.10 Notably, Block C, the site of the fire, was intended for 38 inmates but held 122 people at the time of the incident.11 The Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR) was critical of the overcrowded conditions at Tangerang Prison and claimed that overcrowding complicates the quick evacuation process during fire emergencies.12

Human Rights Standards Contradicting Prison Overcrowding

This section will dissect the case through the lens of international standards on prisoners’ rights, primarily focusing on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the United Nations Standards Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, commonly known as the Nelson Mandela Rules. This analysis aims to evaluate the extent to which international standards were upheld and whether overcrowding contributed significantly to violations of prisoners’ rights.

Article 7 (ICCPR)

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Overcrowding is often at the root of many problems prisons face today, leading to conditions that are deficient enough to constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, making it a violation of Article 7 of the ICCPR.13 The 122 inmates that were residing in Block C which was designed for 38 inmates could have, due to the extreme overcrowding, contributed to decrepit crisis management and intensified the risk of harm. Furthermore, the loss of life was a direct consequence of negligence from prison officers in charge of electricity and the management’s inability to unlock the cells in time.14 The conditions in Tangerang Prison arguably meet the criteria for being deemed cruel, inhuman or degrading.

ICCPR distinguishes between torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by definition. Nevertheless, some scholars contend that the intentionally vague definition of torture allows states to conveniently evade responsibility. Despite the definitional distinction, torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment share operational similarities and can result in comparable effects on the victim.15

Article 10 (ICCPR)

“All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) references overcrowded cells as conditions amounting to degrading treatment which would violate Article 10 (1). Additional conditions outlined include inadequate hygiene, unsanitary conditions, and the potential for infectious diseases to spread, especially when authorities have not taken reasonable measures to prevent such outbreaks. These circumstances are often predictable consequences of overcrowding.16 Consequently, the overcrowded conditions in Tangerang Prison might be interpreted as violating Article 10.

The United Nations standards and norms in crime prevention and criminal justice provide guidance for reform that takes into consideration the variations in legal traditions, systems and structures across different countries. The standards and norms represent “best practices” that can be tailored by states to meet their national needs.17 The following are UN human rights instruments detailing the principles under which an individual under detention or imprisonment should be treated.18 The Standard Minimum Rules, or more commonly the Nelson Mandela Rules, are frequently considered by states as the principal reference for standards in detention and are employed by monitoring and inspection mechanisms to evaluate the treatment of prisoners.19 

Rule 1

 “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. No prisoner shall be subjected to, and all prisoners shall be protected from, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, for which no circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification. The safety and security of prisoners, staff, service providers and visitors shall be ensured at all times.”

Beyond the previously mentioned risk of violating the inherent dignity of the prisoner or subjecting them to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment—a potential consequence of overcrowding—there is an additional concern. Overcrowding poses a major threat to the safety and security of both prisoners and staff, which would result in violating rule 1.20

Furthermore, the Nelson Mandela Rules outline essential necessities for prisoners, including accommodation, lighting, ventilation, temperature control, clothing, bedding, food, drinking water, personal hygiene, access to outdoor spaces, physical exercise, and healthcare services. However, in instances of overcrowding, some or all of these necessities may not be upheld.21

Conclusion

The extremely overcrowded conditions at Tangerang Prison during the fire outbreak can be interpreted as a violation of both Article 7 and Article 10 of the ICCPR, violating the human rights of the inmates. Overcrowding is revealed as the underlying cause of numerous challenges encountered by prisons, posing risks not just to the health and safety of inmates, but also to the prison staff. The conditions in Tangerang Prison are demonstrated to transgress the United Nations standards and norms, indicating a failure to adhere to the principles outlined in human rights instruments and “best practices”. Negligence directly triggered the fire; nevertheless, the role of overcrowding in potentially hindering crisis management cannot be overlooked. In conclusion, the tragic incident at Tangerang Prison serves as an example that emphasizes the critical need to address prison overcrowding, not only in Indonesia but also globally, to prevent further human rights violations. [*]

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.

Reference:

  1. Farias, K, (2013), “Above capacity: relieving overcrowded prison systems in Latin America with international drug control reform,” Suffolk transnational law review, 36 (2), page 367. ↩︎
  2. Narag, R.E. and Lee, S, (2018), “Putting Out Fires: Understanding the Developmental Nature and Roles of Inmate Gangs in the Philippine Overcrowded Jails,” International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 62 (11), page 3509–3535. ↩︎
  3. Joshua, I.A. et al., (2014), “Human Rights and Nigerian Prisoners, Are Prisoners Not Humans?,” Medicine and law, 33 (4), page 11–20. ↩︎
  4. Penal Reform International, Prison overcrowding, (2021). Available at: https://www.penalreform.org/issues/prison-conditions/key-facts/overcrowding/ (Accessed: 17 November 2023). ↩︎
  5. U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Indonesia, 2022 country reports on Human Rights Practices: Indonesia. Available at: https://id.usembassy.gov/our-relationship/official-reports/2022-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices-indonesia/ (Accessed: 17 November 2023). ↩︎
  6. BBC, Indonesia prison fire: Tangerang jail blaze kills 41 inmates, (2021), BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58483850 (Accessed: 17 November 2023). ↩︎
  7. Ibid ↩︎
  8. Muthiariny, D.E, (2021), Police: Fire in Tangerang prison caused by negligence, Tempo. Available at: https://en.tempo.co/read/1511790/police-fire-in-tangerang-prison-caused-by-negligence (Accessed: 17 November 2023). ↩︎
  9. BBC, Indonesia prison fire: Tangerang jail blaze kills 41 inmates, (2021), BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58483850 (Accessed: 17 November 2023). ↩︎
  10. Supriyono & Ihsan, A. Y, (2022), Criminal Liability in Prison Fire Cases: A Case Study of Class I Tangerang Prison FireIJCLS (Indonesian Journal of Criminal Law Studies), 7 (1), page 101-116. ↩︎
  11. Strangio, S. (2021), “Indonesian fire shines grisly light on region’s prison overcrowding problem,” The Diplomat. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2021/09/indonesian-fire-shines-grisly-light-on-regions-prison-overcrowding-problem/ (Accessed: 17 November 2023).  ↩︎
  12. Santosa, B, (2021), “41 tangerang prison prisoners died during prison fire, ICJR: Overcrowding causes mitigation to be hampered during emergency“, VOI. Available at: https://voi.id/en/news/83184 (Accessed: 30 November 2023).  ↩︎
  13. Human Rights Watch, Human rights abuses against prisoners. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/legacy/advocacy/prisons/abuses.htm (Accessed: 17 November 2023).  ↩︎
  14. Supriyono & Ihsan, A. Y, (2022), Criminal Liability in Prison Fire Cases: A Case Study of Class I Tangerang Prison FireIJCLS (Indonesian Journal of Criminal Law Studies), 7 (1), 101-116  ↩︎
  15. Perez-Sales, Pau, (2016), Psychological torture: definition, evaluation and measurement. London: Routledge. ↩︎
  16. Human Rights Watch, Human rights abuses against prisoners. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/legacy/advocacy/prisons/abuses.htm (Accessed: 17 November 2023).  ↩︎
  17. UNODC, Compendium of United Nations standards and norms in crime prevention and criminal justice, (2016), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. ↩︎
  18. OHCHR, Body of principles for the protection of all persons under any form of. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/body-principles-protection-all-persons-under-any-form-detention (Accessed: 17 November 2023). ↩︎
  19. Penal Reform International, UN Nelson Mandela rules, (2020). Available at: https://www.penalreform.org/issues/prison-conditions/standard-minimum-rules/ (Accessed: 17 November 2023).  ↩︎
  20. UNODC, (2013), Handbook on strategies to reduce overcrowding in prisons, Vienna: English, Publishing and Library Section, United Nations Office at Vienna. ↩︎
  21. Barzano, Piera, (2018), “Humanitarian consequences of overcrowding and legal responses in times of armed conflict”, International Institute of Humanitarian Law. Available at:  https://iihl.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/BARZAN%C3%92-REV-1.pdf. (Accessed: 17 November 2023).  ↩︎

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