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Rich and powerful people who have been convicted of corruption and are serving time can influence how the prisons where they’re being jailed are managed, bringing in their power to corrupt behind bars.
The number of graft convicts may only be 4,552 of 248,690 prisoners, or 1.8% of total inmates, in Indonesia. But their capability to influence how prisons are managed is far greater than their number.
The Corruption Eradication Commission recently arrested the warden of Sukamiskin prison in Bandung, West Java, for allegedly receiving bribes. Graft convicts allegedly can ask for extra service and facilities, such as upgraded cells with TVs and access to mobile phones, for a payment.
I research the political economy of prison overcrowding in Indonesia. Having studied how prisons are being managed in six provinces in Indonesia, I believe that locking wealthy graft convicts in underfunded, understaffed prisons is like putting a grizzly bear in a wobbly bamboo cage designed to hold goats guarded by unskilled shepherds.
The cage may still very much stand there, but the bear has the influence on how the shepherd should run the cage.
Let us break the problem down into smaller pieces.
Poor prison conditions
The conditions in most Indonesian prisons are appalling. The standards are far below the UN minimum for prisoners’ treatment, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules. The Mandela Rules require the provision of basic needs and services equal to the national standard.
The Health Ministry’s standard for calorie intake per person is between 2,475 and 2,725 kilocalories. However, Indonesian prisons can only afford 1,559 to 2,030 kilocalories due to tight budgets. The meal budget for prisoners in Indonesia is A$1.50 per inmate per day.
For health services, each prisoner gets a budget of A$1.20 per year, or around 10 cents a month. An inmate needs to share a cell designed for three with six to seven people. Eat, sleep and defecate there. If you are prisoners without any financial support, you are very much doomed.
Encountering this hardship, rich convicts often bribe prison staff to reduce the suffering. For example, graft convicts might pay the prison staff to add boiled eggs for additional nutrition or to rent thicker mattresses.
So, the very first push factor for the practice of bribery in prisons is inhumane living condition behind bars.
Corruption in prison
The corrupt practices in prison take many forms. It starts with paying the guards for basic needs, such as decent food, bedding or a fan. The needs then grow exponentially from necessities to luxuries.
For a certain price, graft convicts can get an air-conditioned cell with a fridge, a therapeutic spring bed and a large TV screen. They can also obtain forbidden goods like mobile phones, laptops and other communication device.
Other facilities that rich convicts can enjoy for a price include getting medical leave that will allow them to leave the prison for days or even weeks depending on the approvals.
The inmates get approval by acquiring a referral letter from prison doctors and warden’s permits. This is when the bribes come into play.
What is worse is the whereabouts of the inmates during the leave is unknown due to the poor monitoring system. This is why inmates like high-profile graft convict Gayus Tambunan can leave the prison and was seen watching tennis in Bali and visiting Macau while serving his term.
Graft convicts run the cells
Moving on from their physical needs, the graft convicts also spend their money to gain a degree of control over how the prison is managed.
They control the prison by providing financial support to programs that are not covered by the state budget in the hope of getting special treatment in return.
For example, many graft convicts help the prison management set up a coaching program for other inmates. The government mandates such a program but doesn’t provide the budget. Some graft convicts take the unfilled mandate as an opportunity to play their roles.
We can see such a practice in the case of graft convict Bob Hasan. The timber tycoon helped Nusakambangan prison, in Central Java where he was held, to provide workshops for other inmates to develop their skills.
Another case involves former Bank Indonesia deputy governor Miranda Gultom, who was arrested for bribing lawmakers. She helped with procuring personal computers and renovating the church and mosque inside her prison at Tangerang Women’s Penitentiary in Banten.
In addition, graft convicts also provide financial support to help guards and staff pay expenses like children’s school tuition fees and wedding ceremonies.
Overall, even though support from graft convicts might be given probably based on good intention thus could not be proven as an attempt to bribe, it still puts the prison management in big debt to them.
Many graft convicts, some of whom held ranks as senior officials, wield political influence even when they are behind bars. These inmates still have support from various places in the executive or legislative branch of the government.
I have witnessed how a legislator approached the then director-general of corrections, Untung Sugiyono, and demanded the improvement of prison management, particularly those holding inmates convicted in corruption cases. The legislator also proposed collaborations between inmates and prison management to create more humane conditions in the cells.
The legislator made this request as his colleague was in jail for corruption.
When prison wardens agree to play nice with graft inmates, they will be offered promotion to a more prestigious post. Should they refuse, their leadership in managing such facility will be considered poor and this “lack of professionalism” will be heard of at the national level.
How to deal with the bears?
To stop graft convicts corrupting prisons the Ministry of Law and Human Rights should make drastic changes.
The first step is to strengthen not only physical security, including solitary cell and CCTV (closed circuit TV) as well procedural security, but also personnel resilience.
A prison may have state-of-the-art physical security and the most developed security system, but without the resilience of the staff the influence of corrupt rich convicts will render all those measures ineffective.
Staff resilience can be strengthened by providing more training, a more robust reward and supervision system, as well as regular transfer or promotion of staff to prevent them being easily recruited by the corruptors.
Second, the authorities need to start managing graft convicts as high-risk offenders. Like terrorists, graft convicts pose an equally serious threat to the integrity of the prison, even though in different ways.
Terrorists and graft convicts employ persuasion and intimidation to influence the system and recruit staff. Therefore, effective measures to handle them include 24-hour supervision through CCTV and electronic ankle bracelets. Other measures are concealing the identify of guards to ensure there is no interaction between staff and graft convicts.
Third, the selection process for prison officials must be protected from political intervention. The Director-General of Corrections and the Ministry of Law and Human Rights should not allow outside influence in the appointment of prison officials. This presents a direct threat to the integrity of the institution.
Failing to admit the threat and counter it with systemic measures, the government will continue to face the irony of putting graft convicts behind bars just so they can carry out corrupt practices in front of their own eyes.