crime

Was a Ban on Conjugal Visits Behind the Latest Prison Break In Indonesia?

One inmate's wife think so.

by Hendri Abik
11 December 2018, 12:30pm

Police search for missing prisoners. All photos by Hendri Abik

The prisoners at the Banda Aceh City Class II-A Penitentiary were restless for weeks before their escape. And Yayuk thinks she knows why. The 47-year-old woman, who has a husband inside, told me that it all boils down to one thing: sex, or rather a lack of it.

Prison wardens banned conjugal visits back in October. Since then, it was all her husband and his prison friends talked about. And she couldn't blame them. She too had desires that, because of the new sex ban, had to remain unfulfilled.

"I think that all humans need to have sex, even if it's just for a short while," Yayuk told me. "But we aren't allowed. If we get caught, they'll quarantine my husband in a tiny room."

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So on Nov. 29, 113 inmates escaped the prison. They attacked the guards during evening prayers with water bottles laced with fiery chilies and used workout equipment to smash the bars on the exterior windows, securing a path to freedom. Prison breaks and riots are remarkably common in Indonesia—where penitentiaries are often severely over-crowded and under-staffed. Earlier this year, inmates set fire to an over-crowded prison in the same city. And last year, more than 200 of them broke down the gates of a prison in Riau province and escaped.

But this is the first time we've heard of a sex ban as one of the reasons behind an escape. To make matters worse, the inmates aren't allowed to receive food from their families either, Yayuk explained.

"It’s really hard," she said. "I don’t think they can stand it. They always complain to me about the new regulations."

Prior to the new regulation, inmates were allowed to rent a small room to have sex with their wives, spending about Rp 250,000 per half-hour. The spartan rooms offered little comforts—and they were too much money—but at least they let couples spend some time alone.

"The room was around two-by-three meters," Yayuk said. "It had nothing inside and you had to bring a mattress yourself or have your husband bring it from his cell.

"I pay so much for the room once a week. It’s so much money. You have to spend so much for everything to run smoothly. The people here make easy money. I’ve seen it myself."

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This was the second-largest prison break of the year—the largest being the escape of more than 1,000 inmates during the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi. It didn't take too long for local police and penitentiary staff to start finding the escapees. I was tagging along with some of the plainclothes officers when they found a prisoner, his clothes muddy and well-worn, hiding on a nearby farm.

“Lie down, lie down immediately!” one officer said as he pulled out the cuffs.

“I’m sorry," the prisoner shouted. "Sir. I’ll surrender."

They quickly spotted a second escapee, a middle-aged man running aimlessly across a rice paddy. The officers grabbed that one too, escorting him to the back of a truck. By 4 AM the following morning, police had recaptured 25 inmates with a three-kilometer radius of the prison. They then began to board inter-city buses and demand passengers show them their IDs.

But they didn't catch everyone. More than two weeks later, 77 are still missing.

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I asked the local official with the Ministry of Law and Human Rights why prison breaks and riots were so common in Banda Aceh. The problem, Agus Toyib, the head of the ministry's Aceh office, told me is staffing. There were more than 700 prisoners at the penitentiary at the time of the escape, but only a dozen guards. That's one guard for every 58 inmates.

“The inmates were not supervised properly, but this doesn't only happen in Aceh," Agus told me. "The ratio of wardens to inmates is far from ideal [nationwide]."

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