THE escape of over 400 inmates from the Sialang Bungkuk Prison in Pekanbaru on Friday has brought to light a larger problem as the jail the inmates were housed in was reportedly overcrowded by over 4 times its capacity.
Government officials say 447 inmates escaped during a riot in the prison caused by bad conditions. Of the total 213 inmates have been recaptured while 224 others still remain at large. This is one of the largest prison breakouts in Indonesian history.
According to the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia’s Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly visited the prison in response to the breakout.
“I have heard complaints that there were completely irresponsible acts by staff [prison guards], who committed extortion,” state-run news agency Antara quoted the minister in an article on Sunday.
He added that there could have been a deliberate decision to overcrowd the facility in a ploy to make inmates more prone to extortion.
Yasonna reportedly assured that the Indonesian government will impose administrative sanctions on officials suspected of extortion and that they may also be handed a prison sentence.
“There is no tolerance for those who are proven to have committed extortion and taking money [from prisoners]. Hopefully there is enough evidence and it is up to the police how they investigate it. I want to throw them in prison so they will know how it feels [to be inside].”
Reports say the inmates at the prison were subjected to harsh treatment and violence at the hands of the prison guards which ultimately resulted in the riot when the prisoners were led out of their cells to perform Friday prayers. They had proceeded to break through the prison door and overpowered the few guards who were on duty.
BeritaSatu News Channel reported that the parents of the some of the inmates said their family members accused the guards of insufficient health care and poor access to clean water and food.
Hundreds of police and soldiers have been deployed to hunt for the prisoners.
According to Al-Jazeera, the over a thousand inmates who did not escape had refused to return to their cells unless the head guard was replaced.
Jailbreaks are a common occurrence in Indonesia and there was a series of breakouts back in 2013.
Last month, the Jakarta Post published an article highlighting an increase by 12,000 in the number of prisoners held in Indonesia within two months this year. This raised concerns about unresolved prison overcrowding problems.
Justice Minister Yasonna revealed that in January the country recorded over 202,000 prisoners and in March the number jumped to 214,675. Most of the prisoners were in for drug-related crimes.
“What will happen if we keep putting people behind bars?” he said.
He insisted that the problem will remain unresolved if the government continues to only build new prisons every year and not deal with the issue in more pragmatic ways.
“We’ll never afford to keep establishing new prisons to accommodate them. The money would be better going into infrastructure development,” he said.
“We should reform our criminal system. Instead of putting them in jail, it’s better to make them do social work. Our Criminal Code revision should include alternative punishments.”
Additional reporting from Reuters.