Deadly Indonesia prison fire highlights systemic problems


JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Overcrowding, mass escapes, protest riots, extremism and corruption: Indonesia’s prisons have long been a hotbed of problems. On Wednesday it was tragedy, as a fire ripped through a block of the Tangerang prison on the outskirts of Jakarta, killing more than 40 and injuring twice that number. Authorities say their initial investigation is pointing to an electrical short circuit as the cause of the blaze. Here is a look at some of the issues the prison system has faced in recent years:


Tangerang prison was built to hold 900 prisoners but currently has more than 2,000. Block C, where the fire broke out early Wednesday, houses primarily drug offenders. Its 19 cells, meant to hold 40 inmates, had more than triple that.

More than half of the inmates in Indonesia’s prison system have been convicted in the country’s war on drugs. In an amnesty last year meant to reduce numbers as COVID-19 rampaged through the prisons early in the pandemic, the government released tens of thousands of people who had served at least two-thirds of their sentences.

According to the department of corrections, as of July there were 268,610 inmates in Indonesia’s prisons, which were built to hold 132,107 people.

An independent study in 2018 by University of Indonesia researchers found there was only one officer for every 55 inmates.


Following an Islamic extremist attack in 2002 on the tourist island of Bali when Jemaah Islamiyah militants bombed nightclubs, killing 202 people, mostly foreigners, Indonesian security forces embarked on a wide crackdown, crushing the network and arresting hundreds.

But once in prison, the lack of close supervision 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 prisoners have been involved in extremist cases in the past decade, and most were radicalized in prison.

In the trial of Aman Abdurrahman, who was sentenced to death in 2018, the radical cleric was found to have incited and directed several attacks by his followers, including a 2016 suicide bombing at a Starbucks in Jakarta, while he was in prison. Abdurrahman, who was serving a terrorism-related sentence, was able to communicate with his supporters on the outside through visitors and video calls.


Jailbreaks have been common in recent years in Indonesia, where the lack of supervision and sometimes crumbling structures combine to make escape an attractive option to inmates, sometimes en masse.

A year ago, a Chinese inmate who was on death row for drug smuggling tunneled his way out of Tangerang prison using stolen tools over a period of six months. His body was found in a town a month later in what police called a suicide.

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

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

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, and several notable escapes have taken advantage of daily prayer time.

In 2018, more than 100 inmates overpowered a guard after being let out of their cells for evening prayers at the Lambaro penitentiary in Aceh province, then dashed out through gaps in the wire and iron bars they had cut in advance.

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


The government recognizes there is a problem and plans to refocus its approach toward drug offenders as part of the solution, said Reynhard Silitonga, the head of corrections at the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. It intends to start looking at drug offenders as addicts who need treatment rather than criminals, and focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration, he told The Associated Press.

Currently, of 139,088 convicts in drug cases, 101,032 are serving terms of less than 10 years for offenses involving only small quantities of narcotics.

He said re-directing drug users into rehabilitation programs will vastly reduce the number of people in prisons and alleviate most of the problems. If a solution is not found, he predicted that over the next five years the prison population could top 400,000.


Rising reported from Bangkok.


This story corrects the spelling of the name of the corrections official to Reynhard instead of Reyhard.

Police officers guard at the main entrance gate of Tangerang prison in Tangerang on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. A massive fire raged through the overcrowded prison early Wednesday, killing a number of inmates. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

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