Just Visiting

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Most expatriates will never see the inside of an Indonesian jail. But should you ever have a friend fall afoul of the nation’s capricious legal system—or if you feel the urge to spread some sunshine among inmates—here’s a visitors’ guide to Indonesian prisons.

When Someone Gets Busted

The best thing you can do for any friend who gets arrested is provide money (for any ‘fees’) and access to Indonesian friends in high places (for ‘legal advice’). It is an offense to encourage people to break the law, so I strongly discourage paying bribes – although some people insist such payments can help to minimize or even avoid jail time.

The worst thing a foreigner arrested for drugs can do is bray to the media, bray to their embassy and show any disrespect to law enforcers. Calling Immigration officers “corrupt monkeys” as you are filmed by a TV crew will not prompt authorities to look upon you fondly. Public threats of retaliation from your country’s government are also counterproductive. Should a case reach court, then contrition and respectful politeness may reduce the severity of a sentence. Looking bored and slovenly in court will not help.

Another mistake that some arrested foreigners make is trusting unannounced ‘lawyers’ or ‘fixers’ who visit them at a drugs detention centre and claim that if thousands of dollars are transferred within a couple of days, they can stop a case from going to court. Such ‘lawyers’ are sometimes just thieves, who take the money and are never heard from again.

Crowded Houses

If you’re a do-gooder, desirous of bringing happiness to a foreign inmate, you cannot, in theory, just arrive at a jail and ask to visit a random prisoner. You should first know the name of the person you intend to visit.

Jails are under the administration of the Justice and Human Rights Ministry’s Directorate General for Corrections, which has an online list of prisons by province: http://ditjenpas.go.id/views/upt. Overcrowding is a problem, with the prison population now 143% above capacity. Rich prisoners can buy a private cell and amenities. Those without funds suffer.

Many foreign inmates would appreciate visits and gifts to alleviate their tedium. Most foreigners are serving time for narcotics offenses. Many are from Africa, especially Nigeria, and also from Asia. In recent years, the number of Iranians incarcerated for drug smuggling has increased.

Drug use is widespread behind bars – several prisons have contained drug factories. Some inmates claim it is easier and cheaper to buy narcotics than a sterile needle. HIV levels in jails are rising.

Jails (penjara) are classified as either Lapas or Rutan. Lapas or LP is short for lembaga pemasyarakatan – correctional institution, where convicted criminals are held and supposedly rehabilitated before re-entering society. Lapas are graded as Class I (maximum security and capacity for more than 500 prisoners), Class II (capacity of 250-500) and Class III (capacity of up to 250). Rutan (rumah tahanan) is a detention centre, where criminal suspects are held pending a final and binding decision; yet it’s not uncommon for rutan to hold convicted criminals.

Visiting Days & Hours

These vary from prison to prison, but generally you can visit between 9am and midday from Mondays to Thursdays, although not on public holidays.

At Jakarta’s Cipinang jail, visiting hours are from 9am to midday, and then from 1.30pm to 3pm on Mondays to Fridays. The visitors’ registration office is usually open before 9am. Some prisons close early on Fridays but may be open on Saturdays.

There is no fee for visits, but that doesn’t stop some guards from asking. Some visitors like to keep guards happy by giving them cigarettes and small sums of money. This is illegal, although some guards happily accept such ‘gifts’ and may even insist on them.

Visitors are supposed to be “modestly dressed”.

What to Bring

The more you attempt to bring inside, the more you will be subject to scrutiny and possible requests for unofficial visiting fees. Also, the person on the receiving end of numerous bags of goods – unless they are extremely influential – will be under great pressure to “share” the contents. They may also be asked to pay for the privilege of your visit, after you have left.

Most Indonesian prisons have a ‘cooperative’ shop where prisoners can buy necessities, including food and drinks. Also, guards can be paid to bring in meals from outside – at an inflated price. Wealthy prisoners hire others to cook for them.

  • Money. Keep it tightly folded in your pocket and covertly hand it over. Don’t flash it about, or the inmate may later have to ‘share’ it.
  • Cigarettes are a useful currency. Bring about 10 packs, a mix of kretek (clove) and regular, even if the inmate doesn’t smoke. Bringing in cartons may result in guards and other inmates claiming some.
  • One or two bags of food and drinks. If you bring in vast amounts of food, it may soon be pilfered, so keep it simple. Guards may inspect home-cooked meals, whereas packaged food from shops is less likely to be opened. That said, guards at a West Java prison last week caught a 44-year-old woman trying to smuggle in eight sachets of coffee filled with marijuana.
  • Shoes and clothing. Cheap shoes, t-shirts and jeans may be appreciated and can always be traded. Don’t bring in multiple garments on a single visit. Some prisons insist that inmates’ clothing must be blue.
  • Writing materials. Some prisoners will enjoy keeping a diary or journal.
  • Books. Preferably positive and uplifting. Iranian prisoners will treasure books in Persian. Books have little currency value but will be passed around.
  • Medicine, if requested by an inmate. Carry a receipt and prescription in case guards try to confiscate any pills. You may need permission from the prison doctor. Some inmates will want contact lenses or glasses. Female prisoners will appreciate feminine hygiene products.

Forbidden Items

  • Mosquito repellent can be ingested by suicidal inmates.
  • Drugs and alcohol. Some visitors smuggle spirits inside plastic bottles, or pay an unofficial fee to bring in cans of beer.
  • Anything made of glass or metal could be used as a weapon. So no glass bottles and no metal utensils or cans. Chopsticks may be confiscated.
  • Mobile phones, SIM cards and chargers. Some inmates claim these are essential. They are also illegal.
  • Cameras. Photos are not allowed. DVDs also not allowed, although guards are inconsistent in confiscating them.
  • Fuel. No lighter fluid or gas bottles.

On Arrival

  • Register at a small outside building or ante-room. Depending on the prison’s technology, you may have to take a number from an electronic dispensing machine. These machines are often broken.
  • Complete a visitor’s form. This requires your personal data, as well as the name, cell block and crime of the inmate you wish to visit, and a list of items you have brought.
  • List how many people will be making this particular visit. This is so that guards can count “three people visited Prisoner X, three people left”. In 2012, a man serving a six-year sentence for terrorism at Jakarta Police’s detention centre received a visit from some women wearing burqas. He put on one of the burqas and walked out with his visitors.
  • Once your number is called or displayed, present your form, along with a KITAS or passport, so the official can check your details. Your data may be entered into a computer.
  • Upon being given a stamped or newly printed form, proceed to a main entrance and wait in line. Most other visitors are wives or relatives bringing food.
  • Eventually you will be called through to a guards’ room for inspection. The first time I visited one jail, a guard claimed that if I gave him $100, he would not inspect my two plastic bags.
  • Hand over your ID in exchange for a numbered visitor’s tag. Also hand over your mobile phone in exchange for a numbered card.
  • Your hand or wrist must be given an ink stamp, signifying your status as a visitor.

Once Inside

  • If you have not provided advance notice of your arrival, a prisoner working as an assistant for the guards will summon the inmate you intend to visit.
  • You can meet in the official visiting room, though it may be hot, noisy and crowded. Alternatively, many visits take place outside cells or even inside offices. Using these locations will cost money.
  • Don’t feel threatened sitting among inmates. No one has anything to gain by attacking you. Leaders of ethnic groups will lose privileges if people in their gangs are violent, so peace generally prevails.

Conjugal Visits?

Conjugal visits are not covered under Indonesian law, although rich prisoners can pay for private visits from prostitutes and spouses.

The 1999 Law on Prisoners’ Rights allows prison heads to grant “home leave” of up to two days to selected prisoners. This privilege is not available to foreign inmates. Some wealthy inmates regularly leave jail, ostensibly for medical treatment.

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.