Massive Break Illustrates Indonesia’s Prison Dilemma

On May 5, when officers unlocked detention rooms to allow inmates to perform Friday prayers, 448 of them suddenly attempted to breach the main gate of Sialang Bungkuk Prison on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and, having failed that, boiled out of a side gate, overwhelming the outnumbered officers.

In the midst of utter pandemonium, the escaping inmates spilled onto Merpati Road to the Trans-Sumatra highway and raced into residential neighborhoods to hide. Others seized residents’ vehicles, taxis and public transport to flee. Meanwhile, hundreds of residents took spontaneous action to form barricades to help pursuing officers. As of early this week, at least 317 of the fleeing prisoners have been rearrested and returned behind bars. Some were even brought back to the authorities by their families.

The incident, while dramatic, is disturbingly emblematic of prison conditions across Indonesia, where overcrowding is rampant, sanitary conditions are miserable and guards are deeply corrupt. According to a 2016 analysis by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, these structural problems are so severe that they facilitate the recruitment behind bars of prisoners for such organizations as the Islamic State and homegrown radical Islamist groups, defeating efforts at deradicalization and rehabilitation.

The massive jailbreak was kicked off by soaring tensions between correctional officers and prisoners, most of them convicted of narcotics abuses and other crimes, who were protesting the harsh treatment they were receiving behind bars. An investigation by authorities revealed that the incident took place following protests from inmates who said they could no longer bear the discrimination they received. The officers are reportedly to have abused their power by requesting illegal fees to use the dungeon’s facilities. Failing to cater those requests, the inmates will be placed into smaller rooms and be given limited access to prison’s facilities.

Although the prison has beds for only 300 inmates, six times as many -- 1,870 prisoners – are locked inside it. At the same time, the prison only has 54 employees and 30 wardens guarding it. Prisoners outnumbered the security officers by 62 times.

Responses from police and government

Immediately after the terrifying episode became public, the police deployed more than 300 personnel to comb through all possible areas where the fugitives might flee. The General Director of Corrections, I Wayan Kusmiantha Dusak, said the police had recorded all identities of prisoners who have now become fugitives. Most of them were convicted for fraud, gambling, and drug use.

The manhunt for the remaining free inmates is continuing. Detectives from neighboring provinces have come to the rescue by conducting joint-force searches to expand the search area. All possible efforts are taken by the authorities to ensure the citizens’ safety at large and regain control of the situation.

After receiving the initial investigative report, the Minister of Law and Human Rights, Yasonna H Laoly, fired three officials and stripped them permanently of their civil service status. The officers are Teguh Triahatmanto, the Head of Sialang Bungkuk Detention Center; Taufik, the Chief of Security; and Tomi Firdaus, the Head of Subsection Prisoner Service. The Head of the Regional Office of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights along with the Head of Riau Correction Division were also removed from their posts. Both had to go through counselling in Jakarta.

Yassona explained that the officials were dismissed because the investigations found instances of violations including requesting illegal fees and extorting money from prisoners for the ordinary use of the prison’s facilities. Such infringements are deemed intolerable, Yasonna said, adding he believed that the sanctions are in accordance with the rules.

Overcapacity and Its Solutions

The overcapacity issue that exists in almost all detention houses has the potential to trigger incidents such as this, the biggest since July 2013, when 240 prisoners including several convicted terrorists escaped following a deadly riot at a prison in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra. It not only indicates the Indonesian government’s mismanagement of prisons but also illustrates the urgency to reform the justice system in this country.

Some 470 prisons are scattered across Indonesia that supposedly can accommodate 117,978 inmates guarded by 31,000 correctional officers. However, the prisons house 213,255 inmates, nearly twice the prisons’ capacity. Thus, overcapacity in Indonesia’s prisons is considered by critics to be nearly beyond the limits of humanity.

Commenting on the case, Indonesia’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla advised that immediate solutions to reduce the number of prisoners include granting reintegration rights such as remissions and amnesties given to the well-behaved prisoners and those who only have a year or less remaining jail time. Furthermore, Kalla has sought to coordinate with the Ministry of Finance to increase the budget of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights to improve detention facilities, to expand the size of existing prisons, and to employ more wardens.

However, the government's attempt to address this issue in the long run should begin by reforming the judicial system in Indonesia. The majority of Indonesia’s laws and Criminal Code are oriented towards imprisonment. Enforcement of restorative justice would give judges more options in sentencing defendants, to include social work penalties, conditional punishment, and fines. It is also of note that a President Regulation must be initiated to be legal umbrella for prosecutors and judges to impose alternative criminal sanctions.

Additionally, 30 percent, or about 64,000 prisoners are in jail because they have been convicted of illegal use of drugs. It is by far the largest contributor to the number of inmates. Legal experts recommend that users and addicts exclusively, should not to be sentenced to prison. Medical and social rehabilitation is deemed more appropriate for them. It is believed that this measure could significantly reduce the overcapacity issue and restore a more humane living for inmates in the country.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester. Dikanaya Tarahita is a freelance writer from Indonesia and studied HR Management and Industrial Relations at the University of Manchester.