Wednesday, October 4, 2023

High Death Toll in Tangerang Fire Returns the Spotlight on Prison Overcrowding Problem

Chairul Fikri, Bayu Marhaenjati, Grace N. Chandra
September 8, 2021 | 4:46 pm
A cell at the Tangerang Penitentiary is destroyed by fire on Sept. 8, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Justice Ministry)
A cell at the Tangerang Penitentiary is destroyed by fire on Sept. 8, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Justice Ministry)

Jakarta. On Wednesday, the fire in the Tangerang Class I Penitentiary in Banten had shed light on Indonesia's longstanding problem of overcrowded prisons that have been overwhelmed by the country's legal system's tendency to send drug users to jail instead of rehabilitation facilities in the past decade. 

At least 41 people died from this incident, including two foreign inmates from Portugal and South Africa, making it one of the deadliest incidents in Indonesia in the past few years. Eight were seriously injured, and 72 sustained minor injuries.

The fire, which started around 01:45 a.m. Western Indonesian Time (WIB) scorched through Block C2 of the 9-block prison that held 122 inmates. 

The block held inmates charged with drug offenses. Amongst the 41 identified victims, one was charged with terrorism, one with murder, while the rest were all detained on drug-related charges.


Apart from the fact that the fire broke out in the early hour when all inmates were sleeping, many points Tangerang jail's overcrowded condition may contribute a bigger part to such a high death toll.

“The cause of this fire is overcrowding, poor security of electrical facilities, and slow response time to carry out evacuations,” criminologist Leopold Sudaryono said. 

"Block C2 is overcrowded. The prison is designed to hold 600 inmates. Today, there were 2,072 inmates. So, the overcrowding was at 245 percent,” Leopold said. 

Data from the Directorate General of Penitentiary System at the Ministry of Law and Human Rights showed only three of 12 prisons in Banten that operate within their capacities. The other nine prisons were under capacity by between 34 to 245 percent. 

Yasonna Laoly, Indonesian Minister of Law and Human Rights, said he acknowledged the overcrowding problem and pointed that the cause was how the country's legal system handles drug-related offenders. Often, the court sends drug users to jails instead of rehabilitation facilities. 

"Almost all prisons in Indonesia are overcrowded, and about 50 percent of the inmates are inmates from drug-related cases. I have suggested a revision to the [2009 Law] about Narcotics. I think [the law] needs to be improved, so we can solve the overcrowding problem in our prisons," he said.  

On Average, prisons across Indonesia now hold 96 percent more inmates than their designed capacity, the ministry's data showed. Only three provinces — Yogyakarta, Gorontalo, North Maluku — have enough cells to imprison their inmates. 

On the other hand, provinces like East Kalimantan, Jakarta, and Riau would need to build twice as many prison cells as they have today to contain their inmates properly. 

Signs for this problem emerged a decade ago. In 2011, Indonesia's prisons had the capacity for more than 135,000 people in total, with only around 84,000 inmates across the archipelago. Still, prisons in regions like Jakarta and the East Kalimantan held double the number of inmates that the facilities were supposed to hold.

Aceh, Bali, Bangka Belitung, and Banten were also among 16 provinces with overcrowded prisons at the time. 

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