Dec 11, 2023 Last Updated 5:06 AM, Dec 11, 2023

Prison cum hostel?

Prison cum hostel?

John M. MacDougall

   ‘Pass it over’. Painting by Alit Ambara ( an
   artist and activist with Jaringan Kerja Budaya based in Yogyakarta

Prisons are the dream zones of statisticians. Their inhabitants are quarantined, and ready for counting, tabulation, health-related analysis or psychological profiling. Why, then, are prisons so difficult to monitor or to improve? Why do their inhabitants return to crime and not seek jobs in bureaucracies? Albert Camus, himself a student of prisoners in France, once wrote the epitaph for modern man, ‘He fornicated and read newspapers’. The modern inhabitants of Indonesia’s Cipinang correctional facility do very little of the latter and tend to focus on the former, along with narcotics.

Who can blame them? Trapped against their will, Cipinang’s prisoners are aware of a fact explained to me by a long-term inhabitant and former prison block leader: ‘All prisoners are sure that not one of them is bener (a morally responsible person)’. This may be hard for us to accept, as we often have a tendency to side with the downtrodden criminal. Under Suharto, we sided with the victims of oppression, including those who were in prison. During wars, we side with the victims of oppression or torture. Indonesia has changed since Suharto’s New Order regime. What, then, do we have to say about prisons where the downtrodden and the wealthy inhabit the same spaces and serve time together?

Cipinang’s 3,700 inhabitants do what they can to seek pleasure, freedom (through remissions to their sentences) and money. Drugs and block-level power facilitate the acquisition of all three. Cipinang’s criminals tend to choose their methods from a selection of locally accepted crimes – locally accepted, that is, in Cipinang itself. These include smuggling, drug trafficking, prostitution and corruption. The question in the heads of most of Cipinang’s prisoners is: ‘How will I sustain my habits, advance my wealth and shorten my sentence without dying in the process?’

The question in the heads of most of Cipinang’s prisoners is: ‘How will I sustain my habits, advance my wealth and shorten my sentence without dying in the process?’

Many of them die trying. In April 2006, Indonesia’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights reported that 89,000 prisoners were housed in 396 prisons in the country. Most had been convicted of a narcotics-related crime. Of Cipinang correctional facility’s prisoners, nearly 70 per cent are serving time for narcotics crimes. Since 2001, the high number of narcotics arrests in the greater Jakarta area has created an overpopulation crisis, forcing the corrections department to house most drug-related prisoners in Cipinang. Although no solid figures exist, a large percentage of these prisoners are heroin users or dealers.
Once they were all pooled together at Cipinang, it was only a matter of time before reports of high HIV infection rates and prison deaths due to AIDS reached the public ear. Meanwhile, in the Kerobokan Prison in Bali, 35 of 62 intravenous drug-user prisoners (56 per cent) were HIV positive. In Jakarta’s Salemba Prison 22 per cent of the 250 prisoners were HIV positive. The detention house in Pondok Bambu in Jakarta reported that of 252 prisoners, 10.3 per cent were HIV positive. In 2002, the Ministry of Health indicated that 22 per cent of all prisoners in Indonesia were HIV positive.
Most of the deaths in Cipinang are due to intravenous use of low-grade heroin or putow. Putow is only one among many commodities smuggled into the prison. Low-grade heroin, methamphetamines, cigarettes and cooking supplies make every prison block into a mini-market for the commerce of both illicit and tolerated goods. There is no shortage of drugs at the Cipinang prison and, if one is running short, they can be ordered by cell phone. In fact, one source said that when supply is scarce on the outside, dealers often come to the prison to place orders through dealers imprisoned there.

Putow is the drug of choice at Cipinang. It is cheaper than heroin and is stirred into water, not cooked, before injection. Addicted prisoners share doses and needles, and provide services to other prisoners in the hope of making enough money to purchase another partial or full dose for themselves.

The prison functions like a market but the distribution conduits of its goods are controlled and policed by the guards. The guards control distribution of everything from bananas to cigarettes to drugs. If a prisoner has money to buy goods he must place an order with a guard. Guards are discerning merchants and often extend credit through trusted prisoners, but force new clients to pay cash up front.

Blocks and markets

Money, and not the toughness or criminal bravado of the past, now organises the distribution of power and pleasure at Jakarta’s Cipinang prison. Power at Cipinang is loosely defined as the ability to manipulate the sale of goods and the distribution of favours through financial access to guards. It provides the prisoner with personal security and access to more money and a better position on the cell block. Therefore, a prisoner will circulate valuable commodities such as drugs to increase his wealth and his ability to hire and control addicts, guards, external dealers and internal sellers.

Guards are not to blame for everything. Every prison block has a long list of goods purchased through hierarchically appointed figures called block heads. Block heads are respected by guards and prisoners alike. They organise cell blocks’ relationships with guards and the warden, and oversee the division of spoils or labour details. A smart block head also has enough money and credit to control goods on his prison block.

Crack heroin, methamphetamines, cigarettes and cooking supplies make every prison block into a mini-market for the commerce of both illicit and tolerated goods

Once delivered, drugs follow a circuitous path to their clientele. Within the block structure, for instance, a dealer will finance the core stash of drugs (heroin, putow, crystal meth, ganja) and then distribute those drugs to his kaki-kaki or ‘feet’. Feet will then inflate the price of the product to sell to their clientele. The block head is given a share of the profit, while the dealer maintains loyalty among his ‘feet’ by distributing protection, food and access to discounted drugs or the chance to profit from sales to poorer clients.

Internally, goods circulate among blocks, cells and prisoners. Some prisoners set up their own warungs or stalls. As in a traditional market, block-specific sellers keep abreast of market competitiveness between blocks and adjust their prices or credit services accordingly. Otherwise, if someone is selling goods on Blok A and the prices in Blok B turn out to be cheaper or can be purchased on credit, Blok A will lose its market. Drugs follow a similar, although more secretive, marketing scheme. Drugs are illegal and therefore price variations are easier to control through collusion among dealers. Price variations create rivalries and rivalries produce loose lips.

Drugs and secrecy

Dealers bribe guards to turn a blind eye. Guards also extort money from prisoners who have secret business dealings or powerful connections to the outside. Between the various guards, there is competition over prisoner ‘handling’ exclusivity. This competition can have effects for both clean and aggressively dirty guards. A squeaky-clean guard is likely to be transferred out of Cipinang if he is not willing to follow market etiquette. But it can cut the other way too and overly aggressive guards can also lose out: according to one senior dealer and ex-convict in South Jakarta, ‘a guard would rather leak dirty facts about a fellow guard’s business interests than lose money to the same guard on the block’. In short, access to profit often trumps career ambition.

Secrecy in Cipinang’s drug trade is paramount. Rivalries between guards can lead to them leaking information up (to the warden’s staff) or out through a number of channels. Some guards are just too chatty. Either way, the concern is that if a guard leaks information about smuggling routes, he will endanger the flow of drugs through his channel of distribution. Because of this constant risk, dealers on the inside must work within a compartmentalised cell system (stelsel terputus) in order to protect the most vital links in the drug economy.

The compartmentalised cell system works as follows. A dealer on the inside is the only player who is aware of all of the different actors involved in bringing drugs into the prison. Meanwhile, the external seller knows only the buyer and the guard, while the internal sellers are ignorant of the guard’s identity or the source on the outside. The guard only knows the identity of the internal buyer, while drug couriers are regularly switched to avoid the risk of personal relationships forming between guards and couriers.

When the cell system is compromised through information leaks, everyone is suspected of leaking information to the warden. The more exposed the drug trade becomes, the more difficult it is to maintain fluid distribution and payments to guards and block heads. Then, the whole economy turns hyper-secretive and there are itchy guards, feet, addicts, wardens and whoever else depends on the cash flow. In some cases the leaky guard will be transferred to another prison to avoid a market meltdown and its effects upon the cellblock. In other cases there will be a silent takeover of his position in the drug market.

How do the ‘feet’ keep from being robbed or threatened by other addicts? If an addict threatens one of the feet, or, worse still, the dealer, that addict will be alienated and denied access to drugs. To an addict, losing access to drugs is a fate worse than death. This self-inflicted slavery is most apparent among the putow addicts; the ‘meth heads’ are less likely to sacrifice everything for their next hit.  

Generational and class distinctions among drug users

Two dealers explained the reasons why putow addicts and meth-heads behave differently in the prison. It is not simply because withdrawal (sakow) from putow addiction is more painful than withdrawal from crystal meth. Rather, as both men explained, the generational and class dynamics of Jakarta’s drug consumers play a role. Intravenous putow users are usually younger and poorer than crystal meth smokers.

Sabu-sabu (crystal meth) became a very popular drug in Jakarta’s affluent urban population around 1995. It was always smoked, not injected, and suggested middle-class ambition rather than the melancholic bliss of a putow addict. Putow use grew during the same period, but was more popular among a younger non-professional population of punk music fans and self-described deviants. Putow use was more suggestive of a remove from society than sabu-sabu, many of whose users to this day claim it improves ‘work effectiveness’.

Situating Cipinang’s political economy

The sudden rise in drug use and drug-related arrests in the post-New Order period radically altered the prison population and the incentives that had governed Cipinang’s internal economy under the New Order. If we push the clock back to the late New Order period (1982–98), we are forced to reckon with an entirely different set of hegemonic state controls that governed relations among convicts at Cipinang. The prison of the late New Order resembled Jakarta’s markets, which have thrived over the past century and perhaps earlier. As in these old markets, selling rights and security in the prisons were sub-divided along ethnic or religious lines. Gangs in the jail were organised according to the same ethnic and regional identities which dominated markets on the outside.

These identity-based gangs created internal cohesion among separate prison groups and empowered weaker prisoners against the stronger. According to a senior Jakarta gang leader, time spent in prison during the late 1970s was like attending a trade school for crime. Senior thugs were arrested on their turf and recruited young toughs along the same turf-defined lines in prison. Javanese recruited Madurese. Bataks joined Ambonese but resisted fellow Christians from Flores.

Prisoners avoided conflicts with methods similar to those used by rival gang leaders on the outside. There was always a delicate balance but identity, muscle and the threat of violence served to protect prisoners from each other and from the threats posed by destabilising commodities such as drugs.

Money, not criminal bravado, now organises the distribution of power and pleasure at Jakarta’s Cipinang prison

Cipinang’s once market-savvy gang structure has since been transformed. Today’s Cipinang is divided among several grades of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Wealthy elites among the prisoners, with ample funds to feed their own consumption and to buy influence, have replaced the muscle of the old gang networks. Today, both the guards and the poor blocks depend upon the wealth and authority of the richest convicts.

Cipinang no longer functions like a Jakarta market. Instead, it is managed by a set of purely self-interested and wealthy men. Where cultural ties and bravado once instilled a sense of respect for seniority, the post-Suharto dynamic has been managed by money first, with power as its secondary by-product.

Why did Cipinang change so dramatically? Perhaps the appropriate question should be: how did legal, economic and political shifts on the outside affect Cipinang on the inside?

What is a prison if it is not a reflection of how a society views the power of punishment? Indonesian politics changed overnight when Suharto stepped down in 1998, especially in Jakarta. The internal migration of many of Indonesia’s poor to the nation’s capital placed pressures on the city unlike at any other time in its history. The monetary crisis, the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime and an upsurge in prostitution and entertainment ventures allow everyday citizens to participate in illegal activities hitherto controlled by the powerful.

Cipinang is not an embarrassing reality swept under the mat of Indonesia’s judicial system. Instead, it is merely a portrait of Indonesia’s transformation from an ideologically punitive state into a decidedly porous criminal economy.     ii

John M. MacDougall ( is a social anthropologist based in Indonesia

Inside Indonesia 93: Aug-Oct 2008

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