| 21 February 2024, Wednesday |

Indonesia’s deadly prison blaze highlights region’s overcrowded jails

41 prisoners died and eight others were seriously injured, when a blaze broke out at Tangerang prison near Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta last week while inmates were sleeping.

The facility houses over 2,000 inmates, exceeding its official limit of 600, according to government data. Block C, where the fire broke out, housed 122 inmates at the time ⁠— far over its intended capacity of 40.

Tangerang prison is not an exception. In Indonesia and in much of Southeast Asia, overcrowding is common. Prison populations have been boosted by overcriminalization, Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, told DW.

Higher incarceration rates have “not been accompanied by adequately increasing and improving detention facilities,” Hamid added.

Prisoners living in squalid conditions

Overcrowding has resulted in prisoners across Indonesia struggling in conditions that put their well-being at risk and threaten their lives, with many subjected to “treatments that amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” Hamid described.

“They may be deprived of adequate nutrition and medical care. They may not have enough ventilation and light. They may have to take it in turns to lie down to sleep because their cells are so overcrowded. Their sanitary conditions may be abysmal and a serious hazard to health. The result is mortality and serious illness in the prison population,” Hamid warned.

Elsewhere in the region, inmates face similar conditions. In Thailand, which has some of the worst prison overcrowding in the world, there are around 310,000 inmates incarcerated in 143 correctional facilities nationwide — more than two times the system’s official capacity, according to the country’s Department of Corrections.

Thana (name changed) is a former inmate at a detention facility south of the capital Bangkok. The 30-year-old, who completed his jail term a few months ago, spoke to DW about living conditions during the incarceration: “There was only one waist-high squat toilet for a cell with around 80-100 inmates sleeping in it.”

“We slept shoulder to shoulder and end-to-end alongside other inmates,” Thana said. He slept like that from the first until the last day of his seven-month sentence for perjury.

“The sleeping dormitories are empty rooms. We were given three blankets. I laid out one as a mattress, rolled one for a pillow and had the third as a cover,” Thana described.

The problem is even more acute in the Philippines, where “prison overcrowding is considered among the worst in the world,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty International’s Philippines researcher, told DW.

Jails in the country have an average congestion rate of 392, according to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology. Of the 470 jails nationwide, 356 are considered congested.

“The Quezon City jail, for example, has gained notoriety for its shockingly high levels of overcrowding where inmates are seen taking turns sleeping on staircases or on the floor of an open-air basketball court,” Chhoa-Howard said.

“In the first 12 months of the coronavirus pandemic, police arrested over 100,000 people for violating quarantine rules,” Chhoa-Howard told DW, who added that while Philippine authorities said in April that they would stop locking up quarantine violators, “many were still detained and thus prison overcrowding worsened.”

What is causing the overcrowding of prisons?

Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines are among the top 10 countries with the largest prison populations worldwide, according to the Institute for Crime and Policy Justice Research.

The Philippines, Thailand as well as Cambodia also rank in the top 10 of countries with overwhelmed penitentiaries, while Indonesia is ranked 22nd.