Minister Admits Chaos in Prisons

Minister Admits Chaos in Prisons
The Jakarta Globe
by Nivell Rayda

Despite an ongoing reform program, Justice and Human Rights Minister Andi Matalatta openly acknowledged on Sunday that the country’s prisons were plagued by corruption, drug abuse and trafficking, and human rights violations by both guards and inmates.

But the minister told reporters that efforts to improve the system were already under way, including dealing with overcrowding and a frighteningly low ratio of guards to inmates.

"The root of the problem is overcrowding in our prisons, which causes inmates to fight over facilities and privileges," the minister said. "These circumstances lead to another problem, in which the facility is a form of business for the prison guards, and [guards] also often resort to violence to restore order."

Matalatta highlighted Cipinang prison in East Jakarta, which on paper should house a maximum of 1,000 inmates but in actuality has three times that number. The ministry plans to transfer some Cipinang prisoners to less-crowded prisons, such as the one in Makassar, South Sulawesi, which only has 400 prisoners in a facility that can accommodate 1,000 inmates.

"But even this is not enough. Nationwide, our prisons should only hold 80,000 prisoners, while the total number of inmates today is 130,000," he said.

On Friday, US-based Human Rights Watch released a report that exposed brutality by prison guards at the state prison in Abepura, near Papua’s provincial capital Jayapura.

The watchdog cited reports of more than two dozen cases of beatings and physical abuse by guards since August 2008.Matalatta said he had not read the Human Rights Watch report, but said the beatings could have been perpetrated by assistant guards selected from the prison population, known as tampi.

"On average, the inmates outnumber the guards 50 to 1, so wardens use the prisoners as tampis," he said. "These tampis are worse than the guards. They don’t have the same ethical standards, training or education levels as the official guards."

To ease overcrowding, Matalatta said the ministry was trying to increase the capacity of existing facilities and was also building new ones. Four prisons have been built since the ministry launched the reform program last year, and the minister has vowed to double the capacity of prisons nationwide by 2010.

The ministry also wants to increase the training and salaries of guards to curb corruption, as some guards had offered better living quarters, air conditioners, cellphones and other luxuries to inmates in exchange for cash.

"We have dismissed more than 100 rogue [prison] officials for corruption, drug trafficking and human rights violations," Matalatta said. "Some of them were high-ranking officials."

Andi Hamzah, a legal analyst at Trisakti University, said the prison system had largely failed.

"With the current guard-to inmate ratio, it’s hard to impose any correctional programs. There’s hardly enough guards to stop [prisoners] from escaping and fighting each other," he said. "Once ex-cons leave the prison system, more often than not they are worse than when they first came in."

Hamzah said that to cope with overcrowding, the government had released some inmates before their sentences were up, and that prisons had failed as a deterrent to crime.

"Going to prison is not a scary thing anymore," he said, "especially for people who have the money."