A Twitter thread by a former prisoner caused a public uproar against the Indonesian government, exposing the dark underbelly of the country's prison system.

On July 12, recently released Indonesian political prisoner, Surya Anta, tweeted photographs of prison facility Salemba Penitentiary in Jakarta, which showed a room crammed with several dozen inmates and a narrow corridor further stuffed with prisoners lying beside each other. 

The image sparked an uproar on social media. 

"At that time, I just made a spontaneous tweet. Something that I kept for myself when I was inside Salemba," Surya told TRT World.

Encouraged by people's reaction, he began a Twitter thread, narrating the "inhumane" conditions he and other prisoners endured before and during the pandemic. 

Released in May this year, Surya was a political prisoner charged with 'treason' for staging a protest and unfurling the Morning Star Flag in front of the presidential palace. He was punished to nine months.

The Morning Star Flag is a symbol of the Papua Independence movement, one that has been outlawed in Indonesia. 

He is also a spokesperson of the Free West Papua Movement, a political group fighting for Papua Independence. 

Salemba is one of the famous prison facilities in Indonesia built in 1918 by Dutch colonisers.

At the start of his detention in Salemba, Surya and his friends lived in one hall with 420 inmates. Inmates called it "orientation". 

One of the pictures he tweeted on July 12, was from that time. "Sleeping like boiled fish", he captioned the picture, which showed hundreds of prisoners in one hall.

The death of a prisoner who had coronavirus symptoms in late April has caused panic and anxiety in overcrowded Indonesian prisons, attracting the attention of international human rights groups.
The death of a prisoner who had coronavirus symptoms in late April has caused panic and anxiety in overcrowded Indonesian prisons, attracting the attention of international human rights groups. (@SuryaAnta/Twitter)

There were only two lavatories in the hall. Water ran thrice a day in two showers and four taps.

"Even we had to fight over who's gonna take a shower next. Some of them chose not to take a shower for days," said Surya.

There was one television in the hall. Violent brawls broke frequently, sometimes on as petty an issue as someone suddenly switching the channel.

With no access to pantry and kitchen facilities, they burned plastic bottles to boil water and would sometimes treat themselves with coffee or instant noodles.

"The air was so polluted. The prison was full of sick people," said Surya.

One day, he succumbed to a fever and a nosebleed. It had been a nightmare for anyone becoming ill inside the penitentiary, as access to medical treatment was difficult.

The clinic was just open in the morning and limited treatment to just eighteen prisoners each day.

On the day Surya went, the clinic had run out of medicine. The doctors did not care much about the prisoners' health conditions. 

They prescribed one type of drug to every sick prisoner, no matter the illness.

"Fortunately, the medicine worked on me," said Surya.

Police officers and soldiers lead inmates evacuated from Kabanjahe Prison during a prison riot in Kabanjahe, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.
Police officers and soldiers lead inmates evacuated from Kabanjahe Prison during a prison riot in Kabanjahe, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. (AP)

The culture of bribery 

Salemba penitentiary was built with a capacity for 1,500 inmates. Now, there are at least 3,300 of them.

The prison facility also embodied social inequality, which served as a microcosm for the rest of the country. It worked on bribery. 

Rich inmates who were charged with corruption and financial embezzlement, bribed wardens to allocate themselves nicer cells.

The access to a basic cell cost an inmate a bribe of $3-$17 (50.000-Rp 250.000) per week.  

Clean and spacious spaces located in Block-O were as expensive as a studio apartment in any global metropolitan city. 

The rich inmates, most of whom serving time after being found guilty of corruption, paid between $3500-$5000 (Rp 50 million to Rp 70 million) for each cell per week.

Those who could not afford to buy any space slept in the hallways.  

"The social gap was so real," Surya said.

Surya was fortunate enough to have the support of human rights activists, who pressured the prison authorities to move him to a seperate cell and away from the suffocating crowd. 

It was a 12 metre square space, partitioned into one lower and one upper room. "It looked like a two-storey cell, occupied by eight inmates."

Surya and four other inmates spent their days in the lower end of the partition. The rest of the three occupied the upper end, which became known as "apotik" or drugstore. The three inmates sold meth and other substances there. 

"When I laid down inside the cell, I frequently saw a white smoke. I used to think someone lit a cigarette, but it was meth actually," said Surya.

Surya heard the drug was smuggled in from outside. It helped some inmates survive the tough days within the prison’s walls.

"If there was no meth, some inmates had nervous breakdowns and they got violent."

Surya's revelation is a small representation of a bigger problem in Indonesia's prison system.  

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW),  Indonesia's prison and detention centres held almost 270,000 inmates until March this year, which accounts to more than double the total capacity.

The HRW called on Indonesian authorities to release all the wrongfully imprisoned prisoners and depopulate the detention facilities in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The threat of Covid-19 looms large in overcrowded Indonesian prisons.
The threat of Covid-19 looms large in overcrowded Indonesian prisons. (@SuryaAnta)

The death of a prisoner with Covid-19 symptoms in March fuelled panic and anxiety among the prisoners and their kin countrywide. Several prisons witnessed violent riots as inmates were falling sick and growing restless amidst the pandemic.

"It was hell. We were not treated as humans," said a former prisoner who was detained in Cipinang in eastern Jakarta. 

As Surya's pictures went viral on Twitter, Indonesia's Minister of Human Rights, Yasonna Laoly, ordered an investigation of Salemba penitentiary.

"We will evaluate and fix the system,"Rika Aprianti, a spokesperson of the Law and Human Rights Ministry’s Corrections Directorate General, told TRT World.

"If we find any deviations, we will crack down on everyone involved". 

Source: TRT World