Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Notes from a 'five star' prison cell

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Lesley McCulloch

On 10 September 2002, Lesley McCulloch wasarrested in Aceh with her friend Joy Lee Sadler and their Indonesian translator,Fitrah, and charged with visa violations, which she denied. She was heldin jail for over two months before her trial, which concluded when shewas sentenced to five months jail on 30 December, then released on 9 February.McCulloch's case is significant because it is unusual for foreigners accusedof visa violations to be detained for such a long period, rather than simplydeported. It is widely believed that the Indonesian military meant to makean example of McCulloch, an academic who has been critical of the TNI'srole in Aceh. In the foallowing account, which she wrote following the departureof her cell mates, she details prison life.

Arrested in a remote corner of South Aceh on 10September, Joy and I were suspected of violating our tourist visas. Thebus on which we were travelling was stopped at an Indonesian checkpoint.The aggressive and poorly-trained officers requested that we open our bags.Distrustful of their intentions, we insisted on placing a call to the USor UK embassy to inform them of what had become a very volatile situation.

In the same manner in which they would deal withthe local people - and having no idea how else to address the situation- the local commander became physically aggressive as he tried to separateme from my bag. Joy's response was immediate, she came to my defence; atwhich point a small fight ensued. The injury to Joy's mouth, inflictedby the commander, had not healed by the time she was released in mid-January.

For four days we were detained in South Aceh policeHQ. There were no further beatings in the police station, but the interrogationand intimidation was itself tortuous. Joy and I refused to sign the fabricatedstatements that were the result of this interrogation process. Our Acehnesecompanion, Fitrah did sign her statement. She was afraid and we understoodher fear. Joy and I were somewhat protected by our foreignness.

Me were then transported, in a convoy of 10 trucks,to Medan, North Sumatra.

On arrival in Medan, we were photographedand our fingerprints taken. Indonesian intelligence officers were alsowaiting to question us. We were tired, and Fitrah and Joy were both sick.But all requests to end the interrogation were refused.

It was 2am when I suddenly became acutely awarethat my clarity of mind was perhaps not all it should be. I became afraidI might say something which would prove problematic later. So, I lay onthe floor and closed my eyes as if asleep. The other two took the cue andadopted similar uncooperative positions. We did not respond to the ragethat followed. The interrogation was over.

Banda Aceh

Arriving in Banda Aceh the following day by plane,we were taken to provincial police HQ in Polda. Our accommodation for thenext three months was a windowless office. Further interrogation producedinsufficient evidence to convict us of the espionage-related charges calledfor by the military and police in Jakarta, but those months were a timeof extreme stress. Uncertainty and intimidation filled each day.

Our arrival at the jail was quite spectacular.An entourage of friends and activists, four lawyers and embassy staff camewith us. Joy had insisted on bringing four kittens and the mother cat thathad been sharing our room at Polda. All were accepted graciously by thestaff at the jail. And so we became just two more among 117 prisoners,only seven of whom were women.

Daily routine

The women's section of the prison is a tiny outsidearea with only two cells. Each one measures approximately three by fivemetres. Three of us shared that space; half of the cell was taken up bythe bed - a raised concrete platform with raffia mats. In the corner, thereis a squat toilet with a small concrete tank of water for flushing. Thewater comes from a communal tap outside. There is no shower or bathroom,and even as I write, seven weeks after our arrival, I have yet to cometo terms with brushing my teeth over a squat toilet.

A window and the open door allow daylight in.And one dim light bulb hangs from an almost deadly electrical cable. Turningthe bulb in the socket gives light, but almost invariably also gives abad electric shock. I have had several blistered fingers and throbbingarms from the evil socket. But much of the time there is no electricity,and at night we sit by candlelight.

The temperature in the cell is often unbearable,so too are the mosquitoes. There are also flying ants, cockroaches andmice sharing this tiny space. Sometimes it becomes rather crowded!

There is a small coffee stall, staffed by oneof the prisoners. Acehnese coffee is delicious; strong, black, and forme, unsweetened. It fortifies me for the day ahead. When the others werestill here, we would sit outside for our first discussion of the day, drinkingcoffee and occasionally eating a small block of tofu for breakfast. Talksrevolved around how well we had slept, and whether good health or sicknesswas predicted for the coming day.

If there was any water early we would drink ourcoffee more quickly and there would be a flurry of water-based activities.We took it in turns to collect a bucket of water and shower. The otherssat outside, allowing just a little privacy in the day.


When Joy was still here, much of the day was busywith discussing and dealing with issues surrounding her ill-health andhunger strike. We were afraid, as Joy's health visibly deteriorated inthe unsanitary and hot conditions. By day 37 of her hunger strike she wasin desperate need of intravenous nourishment. But the local hospitals wereunwilling to help because she was HIV-positive. On day 38 of her hungerstrike (3 January), Joy told me: 'I feel so weak, I want to go to sleepand never wake up.' This frightened both of us and Joy decided to try tostart her own intravenous drip. She is a nurse. In my diary that day Iwrote: 'I feel so desperate about Joy. It really was quite pathetic tosee her failed attempts to start an IV in her collapsed veins. This causeddistress to all of us. Only Dewi cried, whilst the rest of us stood insilence.'

The heat would make Joy's condition much worse.Dewi would sit and fan Joy for several hours. They would sit in silence.Joy spoke no Indonesian and Dewi no English. And Irawati massaged Joy'saches and pains in the same silent way, making soothing noises as she didso. It was really quite moving to see this silent show of solidarity andsympathy.


Unlike the men, the women are placed here to awaittrial, but once sentenced, sent to Lho'gna prison, about 17km from here.Only Joy and I were not moved to Lho'gna after sentencing. Our lawyershad requested that we be allowed to remain here in Banda Aceh. All wereafraid for my safety if transferred to Lho'gna. There are many militaryposted in that area, and by all accounts the anger that had fuelled theirearlier call that espionage charges be brought against me continues tosimmer. It is much better I remain at a distance.

The trial process is very slow and all the womenhad been in this prison for several months. With usually only one shorttrial a week, the length of this process is itself the cause of much stress.Even the most minor cases stretch out over two months. Of the seven women,three of us - Reihan, Joy and I - were political cases; Mar's was conflictrelated; and the other three were gambling and fraud. Reihan had decriedPresident Megawati at a demonstration she helped to organise. When shewas finally sentenced to six months in jail, she only had two more weeksto serve.

On days when one of us had a trial there was alwaysan air of solidarity and optimism. We would gather to hug and wish goodluck to whoever was going to court. Their return was eagerly awaited. Ifnews was good, it would lift all our spirits.

Sickness and depression

The sickness and depression suffered by many isa product of prison life. A doctor comes occasionally, but not each week,to dispense some basic medicines and write prescriptions for anything strong.Most, however, have no money to buy the medicines provided. The water usedby the men to bathe, comes from a very old (and smelly) well. Many haveopen and infected sores because of the parasites in the water. Lethargyand fever is common.

One young prisoner is in urgent need of an operation.He was shot in the foot four months ago and this foot is now badly infectedand he can hardly walk, the pain visible on his face. But the all-powerfulprosecutors won't give permission for him to be hospitalised until aftersentencing, perhaps one more month. The reason? He is too poor to pay therequested 'fee'. Bribery in the judicial system and the impact this hason the length of prison term, ill-health and stress is a favourite topicof conversation.


I am here alone now. Three of the other femaleprisoners, including Joy, have been released. The remainder have been sentto another prison. My days are very similar but much quieter, lonelierand, so it seems, longer. When Dewi, an Indonesian cellmate, and Joy werehere, I would be careful not to waken them. Sleep for all of us was alwaysat a premium. Now I have the luxury of this space all to myself. Some ofthe male prisoners tell me I have the jail's five-star accommodation. Theyare crowded four to seven people in one cell.

I have found solace in writing my diary. But thestories of human misery and tragedy I have heard in prison, made worseby the corrupt and inhumane judicial system, are at times too much to comprehend.In an attempt to relieve some of the stress, I focus on my diary.

Now, alone by day and night, I write much more.Of course, I have visitors and male prisoners still come to the fence tochat. But sometimes, the days and nights are long. I write more, not onlybecause I am alone but because I feel a sense of urgency in my writing.I don't want to forget anything about my time here.

I cannot quite believe I have successfully hiddenmy phone since being arrested. I made only one attempt to recharge it here.The loud bang wakened Joy and Dewi. And the surge of electricity that ranthrough my body almost killed me. So my phone is smuggled in and out bysome very brave friends. At night I can keep in touch with my family andfriends. Previously I fed information about our case to those campaigningfor us on the outside. Now I make arrangements for my free life, next week.

I have never been in another Indonesian prison,but I imagine the experience in many would be much worse. The poor livingconditions, bad diet, lack of exercise and now being alone have all takentheir toll. But throughout I have tried to focus on the positive. A favouredword here is simpan. It means store for later, and I have becomevery expert at that. I am mentally ticking off the days to my release,but each day is the same as those in the past seven weeks. I think aboutthe ninth too often. Time seems to have stopped and each minute, each hourstretches forever. So, I continue to chat, to write and drink the deliciousAcehnese coffee. My release is imminent, but I don't believe it. And asI walk through the front gates of the prison, I can imagine that a smallpart of my heart and mind will remain here with my friends.

Lesley McCulloch (lesleym@postoffice.utas.edu.au) is a Research Associate at the Department of Anthropology,Monash University.

Inside Indonesia 74: Apr - Jul 2003

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