Sat, 04 Aug 2001

Is there a prison system?

Every time news of a jailbreak or prison drama is reported by the media here, it is followed by an official pledge to improve conditions so that there isn't a repeat of the incident. Right? Well, it's shamefully wrong! The public seems to be at a loss as to how to see the logic in the officials' pledges, which have each time proven ineffectual. The officials at the justice and human rights ministry's Directorate General of Correctional Institutions have been reluctant to admit to their incapability, not only to minimize jailbreaks but also to tighten supervision in jails. So, we are expected to be unaffected if from time to time we hear reports of jailbreaks or prison unrest, even though the incidents have become more dreadful in nature.

Take the last example from a week ago at Cipinang Penitentiary in East Jakarta, when two suspects of last year's bombing of the Jakarta Stock Exchange (JSX) broke out of jail. Two aspects emerged here. First, the suspects managed in broad daylight to hold a prison guard at gunpoint and second, they used a gun which relatives or accomplices had smuggled into the jail for them along with two hand grenades.

Another sensational escape which also took place in this prison back in 1996, involved Eddy Tansil, a business tycoon who was serving a 20-year jail term for swindling US$620 million out of a state bank, the largest fraud in Indonesian banking history. A prison guard, who aided his escape, was later sentenced by the court to 30 months imprisonment for accepting a bribe from Tansil in return for abetting him in his escape.

Two days after last week's jailbreak, police confiscated knives, swords, sickles, machetes and other dangerous weapons from the prisoners' cells at Cipinang Penitentiary.

A marijuana plant inside a cell was also confiscated, along with ecstasy pills, shabu-shabu (crystal methamphetamine) and drug paraphernalia. This confirms earlier reports that criminals with a drug history can get whatever they want in jail. In addition, the story about petty thieves getting free tips from seasoned criminals during their stay in prison has long been talked about by the public.

Prison disturbances also include the occasional riot, and the most dramatic one happened at a jail in Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra, in 1996, when six inmates were burned alive in their cell. What made this tragedy extraordinary was that the local police did not bother to investigate the case despite repeated requests from the National Commission on Human Rights.

All these tragedies show not only extreme negligence in the prison security system, but the blatant practice of corruption involving high-ranking officials. In many cases, poorly paid low- ranking officers become the victims of a bad prison system, which lacks discipline and control. There is also a habit among prison management to treat inmates discriminately. Besides enjoying special facilities inside the prison, Tansil also had the privilege of leaving his cell for a "medical checkups," when nobody knew for sure if he really had a health concern.

The whole dirty business has provoked the question: Who is supervising who in the prisons?