JG Exclusive: Locked Up: Behind Bars at Indonesia’s Most Notorious Prison


SEPTEMBER 27, 2015

The following is part of Jakarta Globe reporter Basten Gokkon’s extensive interview with Neil Bantleman and Ferdinand Tjiong – the Jakarta Intercultural School teachers falsely accused of the sexual abuse of three young students – and their wives, Tracy and Sisca, in their first direct comments to the media since their conviction was overturned by the Jakarta High Court on Aug. 14. Read more of this exclusive interview here.

Neil Bantleman and Ferdinand Tjiong were taken into custody by the police on July 14, 2014, and finally released on Aug. 14, 2015. Initially they were remanded at the Jakarta Police’s detention center and later transferred to the notorious Cipinang Penitentiary in East Jakarta. They lost 13 months of their lives because of false accusations.

Q: What was life in prison like?

Ferdi: It was excruciatingly difficult at the very beginning. When Neil and I entered the Jakarta Police detention center, I was confused because other detainees were lined up, waiting for us. I didn’t understand what they were going to do to us because the guards just brought us to our cell. And that was the height of fear because we didn’t know what was going to happen. I’ve only known from watching movies, I’ve never heard stories about prison life because no one in my life has ever been in there. Neil obviously can’t speak Indonesian, and they thought I couldn’t as well, but then I told them that I can. And when they found out, they immediately turned on me with their questions, even during the investigation. During questioning, Neil and I were pretty much separated; even when we were taken to the police hospital we were in two separate vans.

The pressure coming from the investigators was already heavy, so you can only imagine what it was going to be like coming from the other detainees. So I went in and they said that they’d lined up because they were ready to hurt us. But once the guards left they didn’t do it. They just went back to their cells and continued talking. That was at the city police station. At Cipinang it was pretty much the same. But thankfully when we were brought there the prisoners were already split evenly into two groups … because they said they felt something was wrong about our case. So the intimidation was not as intense as what the janitors experienced. Some of the prisoners also said that they hated cases like this. People out there judge me through their words, but inside prison they judge you with power, and that’s the kind of intimidation that I heard happened to the janitors.

After a week in Cipinang I started joining the religious activities there and the community welcomed me and showed me empathy. There were never leading questions or accusing statements. There were horrifying memories there, but also great ones and they taught me valuable lessons.

Neil: We’re teachers. I’m a foreigner, everybody thinks that Ferdi is a foreigner too. And we get detained. We’ve read books, seen movies, documentaries about prisons from around the world. And we’re like, ‘We’re going to a prison, being accused of sodomizing children – this is not going to be good.’ The cleaners have already gone through this. They’ve already been detained at the same place. Prison is a community of sorts, it’s a separate entity to itself. But they know what’s going on, like Ferdi said, they know we were coming that midnight or 1 a.m. We went into this ultimate reality of what our lives were like 12 hours ago – we were teachers at school and now we’re prisoners. And we’re walking down this long corridor, everybody’s standing there and has their eyes on us and they know who we are, and getting into this room with eight or nine other guys and we were in a prison cell.

Like Ferdi said, I don’t speak the language and he’s basically responsible for the both us in communication with them. Somebody comes in and says ‘I want to talk you’ and you’re like, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’ But Ferdi was the one who had to take the burden of all the questions, he’s sitting there talking to somebody and I’m just trying to figure out by asking him and so he’s got this double pressure in communicating and explaining our side of the story and I’m asking these question. And I remember one time I ask something and he goes ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been to prison before either,’ and I was like, ‘Right, yeah sorry,’ but I was just looking for the translation. I didn’t think I was going to be there for weeks.

People say we can protect you inside of the cell, but outside of the cell, we can’t promise you anything. Because people know your stories and they were the same deal. They were part of the public opinion … that we’re guilty. So like he said, going to prison and being accused of that, that’s just the worst way to enter a facility like that. You get that social justice in jail. People want to talk to you. The first three weeks, the only time we left that cell was if we had visitors. We were taken out by the police but we were never by ourselves because there’s our block and then there’s another block, a courtyard in the middle, and our cell leader just said ‘Don’t leave.’ So we didn’t. For the first three weeks or about a month we just stayed in our cell. Every day was just trying to figure out how we could get out. We still believed that this would clear up, we would be released, but it just continued and continued and then we talked to people who then said ‘Prepare yourself for 20 to 30 days.’ And I was like, ‘No, no you don’t understand, I can’t be here for 20 or 30 days. I must go out today or tomorrow at the latest.’ And then that was just not the reality.

And we never thought we’d hate the weekends and ended up loving Mondays because that was the day I could get Tracy to come back to visit us and have this sense of normality even though they’re visiting us in prison at the courtyard, but at least we saw them from Monday to Thursday and the weekends were just painfully long…

Tracy: We can’t visit them on Fridays. So it’s long, it’s a three-day weekend. Imagine being stuck in a cell, and I’m assuming from what they’ve described, half the size of the room we’re sitting now and with up to, at one point, 11 other people sharing one bathroom, sleeping on the floor…

Neil: The block is locked up, you’re relying on the guards to wait when they want to open so you can go outside to get a little bit of sun. You’re living in such an area and that’s your life. You got these great walls that you can see, a couple of office buildings when you go outside, the Ritz-Carlton, and the reality of life that you knew is there outside this building but you can’t get to it. And people kept asking Ferdi ‘Did you do it?’ And he said ‘no’ for both of us. And people would ask me ‘Are you learning Bahasa?’ and I just said ‘no’; why would I want to learn it and then have to make this kind of conversation that Ferdi was having? So it’s better not to know the language, strangely. And then we were there for about four months, thinking that the prosecutors wouldn’t take the case because there was nothing there.

Tracy: ​Because it was already passed back three times. The prosecutors had to pass back to the investigators [for lack of evidence].

Neil: We just kept getting these bad news, phone calls and messages just saying ‘OK, now the prosecution has accepted your files, and we’re going to court.’ And then people are saying ‘Now we’re going to transfer you to the big prison.’ So there’s this fear of starting this all over again because by that time we were in the city police station for about four months, telling them our side of the story that we were innocent and that helped with that support. But we had to leave that and move to this other facility with 3,000 other people who were going to question you again. We’re taken by armed guards to the prosecutors’ office and getting things processed and then get onto this bus with 15 other prisoners to this place that you’ve heard not good stories about either. So like another movie scene, ‘Where are we? How could this be possibly happening to us?’ Going through the whole initiation of going to a prison, figuring out what the rules are, figuring out who’s in charge, people were making it clear as to who’s in charge then it’s starting this whole process again was just… Imagine I’m a foreigner watching this prisoner induction in front of me, it’s not making me feel good about what’s going to happen next and just not know where you’re going, where you’re going to sleep if you’re going to be able to sleep at all, if somebody has heard about you and then they think that you’re guilty and they just want to cause a problem for you, then realize you’re living in the moment.

Since the beginning, we said Ferdi and I would stick together and we made sure that we did that. It’s a harrowing experience where you have no idea why you’re here in this situation, but you are and you have got to deal with the reality. It’s frightening for sure, but then you have to settle into this new life in prison still hoping that things are going to get cleared up and you won’t go to trial, but then more bad news: ‘Yes, you’re going to trial and this is going to be your first day.’ But, well, there’s an exception period so maybe your exception will be accepted and then your case will be over – but then that’s rejected, while still trying to live your life inside jail and…

Tracy: … work on your case, I mean, you have no access to technology. So Neil and Ferdi have all these dossiers. They’re reading through them and then making notes. It’s all paper and pencil to communicate back and forth with their lawyer. There’s no method to do that – only when the lawyer comes out. And Cipinang is quite far away, so the access to their legal counsel and to being able to be a part of the process… I mean, they advocated for themselves and worked as hard as they could to be a part of their legal team, but it was extremely challenging and stressful. And watching our husbands going from being someone who is happy, confident, easygoing, to someone who’s in an extreme state of stress and fear, and you can’t just take them out of there – it’s the worst.

And then the high court overturned the ruling… 

Tracy: (whispers) Thank God…

Neil: You know, by that time in [Cipinang] we’ve been there for eight, nine months. You’ve developed a relationship with the people there and they’ve become your family as well there. They’re all going through the same situation whether they’re guilty or not. You’re still humans and so you share your stories, so when people know, people know the truth. So we developed this really strong relationship with these people that you’re with 24 hours, sharing a room, sharing your space with. So, yeah, it was definitely unexpected and I personally expected that the process would take a lot longer. So [the exoneration] came as quite a shock, but people knew before I did because they’ve watched the TV the night before. So people inside jail already started coming up and saying ‘Hey, you’re free. You got your conviction overturned.’ And I was like ‘What? Turn on the TV! Why am I still here then?’ It was this very bizarre experience. And then we were like looking at each other and said ‘Are you sure?’ ‘No, I’m not sure.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘No.’

But then we were walking out of the prison to meet our family, our wives, friends again. I mean it’s like this overwhelming joy but at the same time we’re leaving all these friends behind that have supported you and then been there for you, and you feel bad about leaving. So you can’t be overly happy when you’re going, but you still are. That’s a very strange feeling of this loyalty for these people inside that helped you survive and supported you and protected you. And they’re happy for you but at the same time being there for a while when other people have left and you’re happy for them. But when you’re going to feel this emptiness inside. So I felt this kind of struggle of emotions. Obviously, I pictured that day of walking out of the jail as a free man. Somebody who’s wanted the decision to be completely overturned, to be deemed innocent and have all of our rights restored, that’s what we wanted. Even the media was there, behind the camera lenses, but their faces were pure joy and concern for us. Afterward people were saying ‘We’ve been following your case since the beginning and we know that this is the right decision and we’re happy for you.’ And that was the nicest thing. Now we kind of need to put the whole detention history behind us, appreciate the positive things that came out of it.