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In Indonesia, Prison Is a Life of Luxury, as Long as You Can Afford It

The discovery of a few full-equipped prison cells is only the latest in a long list of corrupt officials getting priority treatment in jail.
July 27, 2018, 8:29am
Prisoner Artalyta Suryani sits in her luxury cell in the Pondok Bambu women's prison, in East Jakarta, in this file photo. Photo by Ramdani/Media Indonesia via Reuters

When is a prison no longer a prison? Maybe when the inmates have their own keys? Sukamiskin Penitentiary, a prison in Bandung, West Java, that holds corrupt public officials was in the headlines once again for affording cash-rich inmates perks that sort of undermine the whole point of doing time.

Investigators with the anti-graft agency (KPK) found inmates Fahmi Darmawansyah and Andri Rahmat living in what could only be described as well-appointed apartments inside the prison. The pair each had a flat screen TV, a water heater, a microwave, and air conditioners for those hot jailhouse days. Even in a country as woefully corrupt as Indonesia (37 out of 100 on the "corruption free" scale), the case was seen as shocking. But was it really?

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The scandalous details went as follows: inmates who wanted to upgrade their prison lifestyle could give the warden and his staff expensive "gifts"—cash, cars, so on—in exchange for all the luxuries they could fit inside their cell. For the stuff that couldn't fit, they can always spend their afternoons on the other side of the prison walls, just as long as they promised to return.

Now keep in mind both of these men weren't jailed for a simple bribery case. Both were part of a graft case of quite literally astronomical proportions—the corruption of a tender for a new observation satellite purchased by the Indonesian Navy that cost the state Rp 222 billion ($15.3 million USD) in losses. That case brought down several powerful businessmen, public officials, and a military man.

Even in a country where most people aren't all that interested in politics, the story struck a nerve. And how couldn't it? Elected officials who were previously convicted of corruption have run in even the most-recent elections and now the public is all hearing that even behind bars, these officials are living lavish lifestyles.

It just was another confirmation of what everyone has known all along—that the system is rigged in favor of the rich and corrupt. The deputy chief of the KPK, the agency behind in this most-recent raid that caught all these prisoners living large, admitted to knowing about this problem for a long time. The typical cost for a "cell renovation," typically costs between Rp 200 million and Rp 500 million ($13,800 USD to $34,500 USD).

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And this isn't the kind of problem a few raids are going to fix. It's systemic and likely goes all they way to the top of the criminal justice system, explained Muhammad Syafii, a lawmaker in the House of Representatives.

"Building a prison cell that's more like a hotel room isn't a one-day, one-man job," Syafii told the local media. "It's impossible that the [Ministry of Justice and Human Rights] and the prison directorate generals were ignorant of the practices."

Especially when you consider how often this actually happens. The drug kingpin Freddy Budiman, before his death by firing squad in 2016, rehabbed his prison cell and was even given a "ruang asmara," or a "love room," so he could sleep with models and get high.

"Every time he had a sexual urge, he had the money to make it happen," said Arswendo, a fellow inmate at Cipinang Penitentiary. "It wasn't a secret."

Freddy also continued to run his drug empire from behind bars, once successfully brokering the import of more than one million Ecstasy pills before he was caught and sentenced to death.

The son of ousted authoritarian ruler Gen. Suharto also outfitted his prison cell with flat-screen TVs, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a plush L-shaped sofa. Tommy Suharto, the "Cendana Prince," was briefly jailed for ordering the murder of a judge who ruled against him in a previous case. He was sent to Nusakambangan, a prison island that's supposed to be Indonesia's most secure facility, but those high walls don't really mean a thing when you're one of the most-powerful people in the country.

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Similar stories have leaked out of prisons in Jakarta, Banda Aceh, and elsewhere. Sigit Priambodo, who served time in a Bandung prison on pornography charges, explained that corruption and bribery was just a normal part of life behind bars, even down to little things like getting access to your favorite foods or a hot shower.

"In prison, money is king," he wrote in a blog about his time in prison. "So many illegal collections of money take place. Everyday, we would give the guards few hundred thousand rupiah for some perks. They would provide us with hot water, and also allow items like cellphones. We can buy food from outside, too."

It's enough that, after the recent scandal, a lot of Indonesians were demanding a change. Some suggested instituting the death penalty for corrupt officials, arguing that you can't build a lux. prison cell when you're dead. Others said the country should freeze and confiscate all their bank accounts so they can't afford to bribe prison staff.

Indonesia's top security minister Wiranto weighed in as well. He suggested moving corruption suspects to a remote island prison somewhere, arguing that moving the prisoners far away from the businesses that support this corruption would lessen it. But Nusakambangan is already on an island and corruption and bribes still found their way across the water. And then there's the troubling fact that putting all these corrupt officials on an island somewhere would make it even harder to check-up on them, and potentially catch instances of luxury jail cells.

Then there's Sri Puguh Budi Utami, the head of Indonesia's department of corrections, who promised that this scandal would be the last one to happen under her watch. She promised to resign if it happens again.

It could be the start of the kind of reform Indonesia's prison system needs. But once you hand the prisoners the keys to the prison, it's kind of hard to get them back.