May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Cashed-up in confinement

Cashed-up in confinement
Published: Jul 23, 2013

Tim Mann

Surprise cell inspections by Denny Indrayana, the Deputy Minister for Justice and Human Rights (pictured right on screen), have uncovered banned items such as mobile phones, televisions and air conditioners - Tim Mann

Television, air conditioning, internet, karaoke, maids. These are not luxuries one would normally associate with Indonesia’s maligned corrections system. But, as in many facets of Indonesian life, certain people get special treatment. Being wealthy might not keep you out of prison (at least not permanently), but it certainly improves the circumstances of your stay.

Three years ago, the Indonesian public was incensed by the lavish conditions inside the cell of corruption convict Artalyta Suryani. The businesswoman, who was convicted in 2009 of bribing prosecutors, was apparently undergoing cosmetic laser treatment when a government task force conducted a surprise inspection of her cell in the Pondok Bambu Prison. Artalyta, popularly known as Ayin, reportedly had a spring bed, sofas, a refrigerator, an LCD-TV and air conditioning. Following several days of sensationalist reporting, the Pondok Bambu warden and several other prison officials were removed from their posts. Pledges were made to drastically overhaul management inside Indonesia’s penitentiaries. But despite the outrage over the Ayin case, reports of wealthy offenders receiving preferential treatment continue to emerge.

Overcrowded and inhumane

Although dramatic media exposures such as the story of Ayin’s cosmetic treatment are relatively rare, it has long been known that well-off inmates pay for privileges such as air-conditioning and personal help. One of the more commonly stated causes for this two-tiered system is that Indonesia’s prisons are chronically overburdened and underfunded (see the article by Leopold Sudaryono in this edition). Prison wardens have spoken of the struggle they face even to provide enough clean drinking water for detainees living in crowded conditions. In addition to the limited bedding and lack of privacy, there is the threat of gang violence and minimal health and education services. It is hardly surprising that those with resources do all they can to make their stay more comfortable.

Some observers have suggested that prison guards are inclined to allow wealthy offenders to pay for perks because the money they receive is a crucial supplement to their low wages. But an entry-level prison guard, with a high school education, receives about Rp.3 million (A$293) per month. While far from extravagant, this is more than 35 per cent above Jakarta’s recently raised minimum wage of Rp.2.2 million, and more than most high school graduates could hope to take home. The problem is clearly more complex than opportunistic officials seeking to augment their pay cheques.

Insiders have described pervasive and entrenched corruption in Indonesia’s corrections system, where even the most basic of amenities like a mattress comes at a price. Although prisons are under the jurisdiction of the Directorate General of Corrections, prison wardens effectively control individual prisons. In his 2008 book, Cipinang – A Village Left Behind, Rahardi Ramelan, who was imprisoned after being charged with corruption, details a system in which detainees are classified into four groups, depending on the amount of funds their families are able to channel inside. According to Rahardi, whose narrative is corroborated by other inmate accounts, the assignment of cells is one of the most lucrative aspects of this process for prison staff. The head of protection and security in each block is responsible for the division of cells. The better-off are often able to negotiate for private or more spacious accommodation, while low-level inmates are expected to work for the block, sweeping, cleaning toilets and preparing meals. The process is part of a pyramid-type system in which block leaders then channel funds to their superiors to improve their own position.

In many cases, wealthy offenders, such as celebrities, corruption convicts and drug bosses, are housed separately as a matter of course, allegedly because of concerns for their safety. Until recently, when the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights began transferring them to Sukamiskin Prison in Bandung, all prisoners serving sentences for corruption in Jakarta’s Cipinang Prison were housed in a separate, spacious block. Prison officials have defended the policy, saying that in addition to security threats, many corruption convicts were elderly and required more intensive medical attention.

Others have to negotiate. I spoke to Irfan (not his real name), who spent eight months in a prison on the outskirts of Jakarta following a conviction for drug use. Almost five years after his release, he was visibly shaken as he recalled his arrest and incarceration. He described how, following sentencing, new arrivals were crammed into an initiation cell, similar to quarantine, where they slept ‘like prawns’ and were threatened with beatings until they ‘bought’ cells. Some of the top-tier convicts, he said, paid to bypass the compulsory quarantine process and move straight into private cells.

Paying for privileges

Although officials deny that wealthy prisoners receive special treatment, they acknowledge that inmates are allowed to improve the conditions inside their cells ‘to make them cleaner’. There are rumours of wealthy detainees paying for air-conditioning or televisions, which they share with other inmates, but such stories can be difficult to confirm. In her 2009 book, Hotel Kerobokan, Australian journalist and author Kathryn Bonella detailed how a drug dealer in the notorious Balinese prison paid to renovate his cell, painting the walls, laying carpet and installing a fridge, microwave and a home cinema with eight wall-mounted speakers. According to one of the prison officials I spoke to, however, improvements usually only extend as far as employing fellow detainees as cleaners or paying for a fresh coat of paint.

Prison regulations prohibit the use of money, mobile phones and laptop computers behind bars, although insiders say all are easily obtained. While prison officials are understandably reluctant to talk openly about such benefits, there are certainly suggestions that inmates are able to enjoy these privileges for a price. Former detainee Syarifudin Pane has claimed that it cost only Rp.100,000 to get a mobile phone into Salemba prison, and spot inspections of correction facilities routinely uncover dozens of phones. Eyebrows were raised in January when a number of tweets were posted from the account of Angelina Sondakh, the disgraced Democrat Party politician (and former Miss Indonesia) convicted for her role in two corruption cases. National daily Kompas reported that the day after her sentencing, the account tweeted: ‘This is all a political game and those playing the major roles are the party’s top officials. I will stay patient and keep praying.’ Angelina’s lawyer claimed that her account had been hacked.

Most Indonesian prisons allow visitors five days a week. Family members usually have little difficulty smuggling money inside. Despite a formal policy of restricting the circulation of funds, Cipinang Prison even has a canteen, where inmates who have had enough of the uninspiring rice and tempeh provided by the state can purchase something a little more appetising.

Perhaps the most shocking of the advantages supposedly afforded to wealthy inmates is the opportunity to take leave from prison altogether. In many of Indonesia’s prisons, an independent doctor’s letter – occasionally backed up by authentication from a prison doctor – is sufficient to secure temporary leave. It does not take a great stretch to imagine how these rules are manipulated. In April, the head of Cipinang Prison was fired for allowing graft convict Muhammad Nazaruddin to regularly leave his cell under the pretence of medical treatment. Nazaruddin, who was treated in hospital after allegedly suffering from gallstones, was able to reunite with his wife, Neneng Sri Wahyuni (also convicted for corruption), as she had been granted permission for regular treatment at the same hospital.

Perhaps the most egregious of these cases was former tax official Gayus Tambunan, who was photographed in a comically bad wig and glasses attending a tennis tournament in Bali when he was supposed to be in police detention in Jakarta. He reportedly left his cell more than 68 times, travelling to Singapore, Malaysia and China, before the media spotted him. Gayus – who now is serving 28 years for sentences relating to corruption, money laundering, bribery, falsification of a passport and tax embezzlement – again made headlines in April 2013, when it was revealed that his wife had been renting a ‘luxurious’ house adjacent to Sukamiskin Prison. The West Java Justice and Human Rights Office stated that despite speculation to the contrary, prison records showed that Gayus had not left his cell.

User pays

While it is easy to express outrage about Gayus and other extreme celebrity cases, it could be argued that the informal prison economy performs an important function. Prison budgets are nowhere near sufficient to provide humane living conditions for all detainees, so all prisoners end up self-funding their incarceration to some degree. Is it really so bad that an inmate can illegally purchase food or a mattress in a situation where the state fails to provide such basic requirements? For the bottom-rung offenders without any family support, ‘employment’ as a cleaner can be the only way of making their stay safer and more comfortable. Similarly, prison officials justify turning a blind eye to small luxuries like mobile phones and extra food, claiming these comforts are important for the maintenance of security and calm in their facilities.

Yet such observations about the benefits of this user-pays system for prisoner welfare do not excuse its abuse by the super-wealthy. The fact is that corruption is so endemic that social inequality has been directly transposed to the one place a degree of parity among classes can be expected. This is especially problematic when you consider that the function of prison is, in part, to punish convicted criminals. When wealthy offenders get to live it up, the deterrent function of prison is significantly diluted.

Clearly management need to be significantly improved across the corrections system. There is some evidence that efforts by Denny Indrayana, the Deputy Minister for Justice and Human Rights, to rein in rogue prison operators have been marginally successful. In May, a surprise inspection of corruption detainees’ cells in Sukamiskin and Cipinang prisons revealed significantly fewer infractions than a similar inspection six months prior. The visit, which was accompanied by a Metro TV crew, nevertheless uncovered over a dozen mobile phones, an iPad and a television.

Ultimately, however, cracking the whip on prison management is only part of the solution. Without attendant increases in funds, so that basic humane living conditions can be offered to all detainees, the poorer prisoners could end up facing even greater harm and injustice.

Tim Mann ( is a development worker based in Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.