Prison Infernos: Fire Defeated Drug Policy

Sep 15, 2016 Opini

This piece was written by Yohan Misero and was published in The Jakarta Post on 6 April 2016.


The riot at Malabero Prison in Bengkulu last week was not just about a burning prison. Rather, it symbolized a defeated public policy. It was a sign that accentuates the failed drug war stubbornly waged by Indonesia.

Similar riots have occurred in the prisons of Tanjung Gusta, Medan, in 2013 and in Kerobokan, Denpasar, in 2012.

One fundamental issue is overcrowding. The Law and Human Rights Ministry, since a few years ago, had planned to build more prisons, but as long as Indonesia is driven by the politics of over-criminalization, prisons will always be overcrowded.

Thus, inmates are more prone to tuberculosis and human immune deficiency virus (HIV) and security problems abound. It also breeds corruption because inmates bribe wardens for better facilities.

In the past years, Indonesia has been obsessed with criminalizing certain acts and sending offenders to prison. This must be changed and to change it, one must understand that such a problem is intertwined with Indonesia’s war on drugs.

In prison, drug offenders make up a large proportion of the population. In some prisons, drug offenders are more than half of the population. The 2009 Narcotics Law, which criminalizes drug use and drug possession, fueled this mass incarceration since thousands of drug users were imprisoned.

The criminalization of drug use is a threat to public health. People who use drugs are discouraged to access treatment if they are criminalized.

This further forces them to a hidden population. As a result, is difficult drug treatment and that creates risk.

In 2010, the Supreme Court endeavored to “decriminalize” drug use, by issuing a circular recommending judges impose rehabilitation sentences on drug users, instead of imprisonment.

If a drug user meets the prescribed criteria, the judges are supposed to send him or her to a treatment facility.

In 2014, several state institutions issued a joint regulation establishing the integrated assessment team. This team was tasked with assessing whether someone is a drug user. These measures, however, are not effective because the law still criminalizes drug use.

Despite Indonesia’s attempts to address its complicated drug problems and overcrowded prisons, such efforts have little positive results. Indonesia should consider an alternative: drug use and drug possession involving small quantities must be decriminalized.

This alternative should be seen from a pragmatic paradigm and an evidence-based approach.

By decriminalizing drug use, drug users will no longer be imprisoned and they will be more eager to access treatment. This would help solve the drug problem and the overcrowding prisons, as demonstrated in countries such as Portugal and the Czech Republic.

But is Indonesia willing to consider this alternative?

After the Malabero riot, the Law and Human Rights Ministry requested the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) take drug inmates into the BNN’s rehabilitation centers.

This request echoes the decriminalization message and it shows that there is an opportunity to honestly debate this notion within the government. However, the BNN rejected the request.

After taking office in October 2014, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo declared, quoting Richard Nixon, a “war on drugs”.

Indonesia’s recent standing on the Commission on Narcotic Drugs session in Vienna showcases that Indonesia is still in favor of punitive drug laws and continues to implement compulsory treatment — leaving no room for alternatives.

It seems unlikely that Indonesia will shift its position at the UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem, which will take place next month.

While Canada, Colombia, Guatamela and Mexico call for drug policy reform that will allow decriminalization of drug use, Indonesia is still implementing the same failed method while hoping for a different result.

Hence, the change that we desperately hope to see will not happen in the near future. We will continue to see a 19-year-old boy risk losing four to 12 years of his life for only possessing small marijuana joint.

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