Many argue that gaols are an integral part of the criminal justice process, and that imprisoning those who have committed serious crimes is a vital element not only of retribution but of rehabilitation. But imprisonment can also betray a state’s most inhumane behaviour. Those who are imprisoned become vulnerable, no longer able to clothe, house, or feed themselves. The state is responsible for the protection of these individuals’ rights, yet prison conditions are often subject to only limited monitoring.
At the same time, the act of imprisonment itself can be highly contentious, for example, in cases involving political criminals or refugees. Regardless of the conditions in which such inmates are kept, their very incarceration is antithetical to human rights norms. On this indicator, Indonesian prisons have improved dramatically since the New Order, when the detention of political prisoners was common. But, as the articles in this edition show, Indonesia still has a long way to go before its gaols can be described as respecting human rights.
Overcrowded and corrupt
The inhabitants of Indonesia’s gaols are primarily convicted criminals. These people often come from the most marginalised parts of society. Once incarcerated, in a country where the social services budget is never enough go around, it is all too easy for those in gaol to bear the brunt of inadequate funding. Leopold Sudaryono sets the scene, writing about Indonesia’s overflowing prisons and the failure of government reform initiatives to improve the situation. His article calls for radical reform, contending that conditions are almost unbearable. Tim Mann’s article, by contrast, shows how the situation is not so bad for everyone. In an article which weaves in stories of the rich and famous, Mann contends that those with wealth often get off lightly, thus bringing into question the retributive function of prison.
Not all the stories about imprisonment of criminals included here are negative. Julie Chernov Hwang presents a close study of the disengagement of a Posonese jihadi while in prison. She argues that prison time can provide the space to disengage from terrorist ideology, although incarceration is just one of many possible factors that contribute to disengagement. Josh Stenberg and Ad Akbar finish this first cluster of articles on an even brighter note, describing a prisoner-organised theatre performance in a Bandung gaol. Their piece outlines how Indonesian’s love of singing and performance is able to find expression even in gaol, where having a creative outlet helps prisoners manage their emotions during their incarceration and reintegrate into society upon release.
While the conditions in which criminals are incarcerated is an important human rights issue, the imprisonment of individuals who are not ‘criminals’ at all raises broader concerns about power and injustice. Over the years the Indonesian government has imprisoned many people whose actions would not be considered criminal in other countries. This category includes prisoners whose crimes can be described as ‘political’ and asylum seekers. Antje Missbach and Frieda Sinanu describe the practice of imprisoning asylum seekers when they have committed no crime, and neither rehabilitation nor retribution is sought. In an article which describes the appalling conditions in Indonesian detention centres, they contend that the expansion of Indonesia’s immigration detention network is primarily driven by international demands that the Indonesian government make transiting through the country more difficult.
While the detention of asylum seekers is increasing, there are now far fewer political prisoners that there were during the Suharto era. Journalist Eko Maryadi describes his incarceration for violating press regulations, concluding with an upbeat description of the improvement in press freedom since 1998 and the parallel rise of his own career.
This does not mean, however, that politically motivated incarceration has stopped. Yap Inyerop’s article traces the stories of several Papuans who have been gaoled for their alleged support of West Papuan independence. Yap contends that freedom of political expression continues to be tightly limited in Papua, with many Papuans – both those who have deliberately challenged Indonesian law and those who are accidentally caught up in the struggle – still locked in gaols for what can be described as political crimes.
Balancing the scales
Overall, the articles in this edition demonstrates that if incarceration is taken as microcosm for the assessment of human rights protection, then Indonesia still has a long way to go. Certainly things have progressed significantly since the Suharto era. Yet political prisoners still remain and – as in other countries throughout the world – more and more asylum seekers are being held as if they were criminals.
Most of those who are imprisoned, regardless of the reason, are held in very poor conditions, except those who can use the corrupt system to buy a better standard of living even behind bars. This injustice within the criminal justice system needs to be addressed for there to be any possibility of prisons performing the rehabilitative function for which they are so often justified.
Although the news of the North Sumatra gaol riot will soon fade from public memory, it is vital that both domestic and international audiences keep a watchful eye on Indonesian gaols into the future, to encourage the development of greater human rights protection in this area.
Nikki Edwards (firstname.lastname@example.org) completed Honours in Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney and is now a Juris Doctor candidate at the University of New South Wales.