Mon, 24 Feb 2003

Prisons need injection of funds to ease overcrowding

Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Every day, Abdul Gofar, a guard at Salemba penitentiary in Central Jakarta, has to watch over more than 200 prisoners in two blocks of the 14-block prison.

To do that he has a baton and a shield, which he carefully conceals close to his private toilet, thinking that if the prisoners see the equipment, it might well provoke violence in the blocks he oversees.

"I will be happy if the government deploys more guards here," he said. "Fortunately I have been able to handle them so far. And I hope nothing bad happens to me."

The four-hectare penitentiary, which is built to house 750 prisoners, has to accommodate at least 2,300 prisoners.

A three-square-meter cell, designed for one prisoner, now has to take in three prisoners, while a large cell of 120 square meters must accommodate 216 inmates.

At lunch time, the 216 inmates have to eat while inevitably brushing against each other. Although the cell door is open, the air in the cell is still dank.

"We cannot lock the prisoners up in their cells. Once we did attempt to lock them up," said Toga Effendy, head of inmate affairs in Salemba prison, who has worked there for 18 years.

"But the prisoners could not stand the heat. They almost suffocated and some of them almost passed out," he said.

As a consequence, the prison's officers allow the prisoners to roam around inside the prison. Many of them can be seen leisurely sitting, chatting and smoking in the tiny gardens around their cells.

Intervening in fights among prisoners is also a daily occurrence for the guards.

"The crowded conditions have increased the pressure the prisoners feel. To ease it, guards here have to smile a lot at the prisoners, no matter what they really feel about them," said Salemba penitentiary warden Haviluddin, who has occupied the post for only the past two months.

"The number of inmates has soared since the reform era. I think that since then economic problems have worsened. Moreover, in the past few years, drug problems have also increased, adding to the number of inmates across the country," he added.

However, the number of guards in Salemba is a mere 29, who work on six-hour shifts around the clock. Thus, on average, one security officer has to watch over about 80 prisoners.

"This is still far below the ideal ratio," Haviluddin said. "I think the ideal ratio is at least one guard per 25 prisoners."

Cipinang penitentiary, in East Jakarta, also suffers from overcrowding. The ten-hectare prison, which has 350 cells designed to accommodate a total of 1,700 inmates, has to take in about 2,500 prisoners.

In a separate interview, Ngusman, the warden of Cipinang prison also said that in his observation, all prisons across the country had been suffering from overcrowding since the reform era began.

Drug crimes have contributed to the soaring number of prisoners. Both penitentiary wardens separately estimated that the number of inmates incarcerated due to drug-related crimes in their prison now reached half of the overall inmate population.

To relieve the problem of overcrowding the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights is undertaking projects to increase the capacity of both prisons.

At Cipinang, prison buildings currently under construction are expected to be able to take in 2,000 inmates. The buildings will be ready in August this year.

In Salemba prison, a similar project is expected to be completed by 2005. By the time the three-story buildings are completed, the prison will be able to take in 3,000 inmates.

"However, I think 2005 is too far away. We urge the government to raise the budget to speed up the completion of the buildings," Haviluddin said.

"Besides, we desperately need more guards here. We have urged the government to increase the number of guards, but the government says that they do not have enough money to pay them," he added.

Currently, the government has to set aside Rp 4,500 (about 50 US cents) for each prisoner to pay for their daily meals.

Considering the current state of affairs, it seems that the government will have to somehow find the means to squeeze more money out of the available resources.