Insights and Analysis

Reform at the Doorstep of Prisons in Indonesia

August 10, 2011

By Leopold Sudaryono

Prison is where some of Indonesia’s worst problems are brought together in the same place, at the same time. These include chronic corruption, an imminent threat of gang violence, over-crowding, poor quality water and sanitation, and an absence of basic health and education services.

Indonesia prison

The number of inmates in Indonesia's prisons almost doubled between 2003 and 2008. Above, inmates at Samarinda Prison in East Kalimantan. Photo by Leo Sudaryono.

With police and prosecutors under pressure to meet annual arrest and prosecution targets, Indonesia’s prison system is now clogged with many inmates who have been sentenced for petty crimes like stealing a T-shirt or harvesting cacao from a neighbor’s land. With a system bursting at the seams, detention in one of Indonesia’s 450 prisons can be devastating, not only affecting a person’s permanent record, but also their physical and mental health.

In the late 1990s, as Indonesia’s reform movement took hold, a tremendous amount of assistance was offered to the justice sector including the police, prosecutors, and courts in the form of trainings, re-structuring, and improvement of systems and procedures. However, even though the number of inmates almost doubled between 2003 and 2008, the correctional system was mostly left out of this reform process.

Indonesia prison

Tenggarong Prison, above, hosts male and female inmates under one roof. To protect women, extra barricades around cells are built and their movements limited. Photo by Leo Sudaryono.

Local media report almost daily about the constrained ability of the correctional system to meet minimum standards for services. Stories about the circulation of drugs in prisons, the provision of luxurious facilities for wealthy prisoners, and inmates who escape or spend much of their time outside of their cells are common. The Director General for Corrections (DGC) once quipped, “If our media reports just one problem a day from each prison, then it will take almost two years to cover all the prisons in Indonesia.”

Since 2008, The Asia Foundation has worked closely with the correctional system to identify and address the numerous organizational factors which underlie these problems. A major challenge is simply the lack of effective coordination among justice sector agencies. In 2009, the correctional system was able to discharge 24,000 inmates after streamlining parole procedures so that inmates could exercise their legal right to early release. However, that same year, the prison population still increased by 5,000 inmates – to a total of 124,000 people – due to an increase in number of people arrested and prosecuted.

Another main problem is that the DGC director general has not had administrative authority over prisons, limiting his ability to provide oversight and offer incentives and punitive measures this has caused prisons to act like little kingdoms, with minimal checks-and-balances.

Other internal problems, while seemingly minor, also contribute to poor conditions. As many as 70 percent of prison staff say they would opt to be transferred to another department in the government if given the chance – indicating that the best and the brightest civil servants are probably not serving as prison staff. Information requests about inmates require up to three months to process given the lack of an integrated national prison database system, and most records are still paper-based. Without data, prison budgets are haphazard, making it challenging to plan for services such as rehabilitation programs, or even to meet the basic needs of inmates, let alone women and juveniles.

A lot of progress has been made since 2008, when new DGC leadership assisted by The Asia Foundation and a network of civil society organizations jointly developed a Blueprint for Prison Reform, which brought together factions across the correctional system to solidify a unified perspective on reform. Since then, the DGC, under the leadership of Director General Untung Sugiyono and the Secretary of Directorate General Dindin Sudirman, has used the Blueprint as a strategic guide on how to move forward. Since 2009, nine working groups have collaborated to produce a more elaborate and operational policy in areas such as the reform of human resources management, changes in the organizational structure, increased public access to information, and improved accountability through external supervision. That same year, The Asia Foundation worked with the DGC team to develop an integrated, nearly real time information systems on offenders. The database has been pilot tested in two prisons so far, and partially through government funding, is now being replicated in 26 prisons across the country. This system will improve both the capacity and transparency of prisons in managing offenders and improving rehabilitation programs and the provisions of parole and remissions in Indonesia.

Pressure for reform has mounted, not only from the media and civil society, but also from state institutions such as the Corruption Eradication Commission, the Ombudsman, and a Presidential Commission (UKP4) that monitors high-level performance indicators across ministries. Benchmarks for reform of the correctional system are focused on improving prison services and increasing transparency of information to enable better mechanisms for parole, remissions, and early leave.

The conditions for Indonesia’s 134,000 inmates may not have changed dramatically in the past three years, but a stronger foundation for better prison management is now in place. For example, inmates’ family members now have improved access to information about their relatives, and progress has been made to fulfill inmates’ basic right to information about their cases and application for parole.

Among the most dramatic policy changes occurred in June 2011, when a Presidential Instruction initiated a radical change in the management structure for prisons, bestowing direct administrative authority to the directorate general. This decentralization of supervisory powers will enable a more accountable budget for the correctional system. Prisons will be required to conduct needs-based planning, and funds for rehabilitation programs will be reinstated. Recruitment and training of correctional staff will be better-tailored to the technical needs of correctional facilities.

While correctional reform is definitely moving in the right direction, many challenges remain. The directorate’s current leadership will change completely by the end of 2011, to be replaced by a new generation of leaders who will have high expectations from the public. The question remains: will they build on the momentum for reform put in place by their predecessors, or will they regress and let business continue as usual?

Leo Sudaryono is The Asia Foundation’s law programs coordinator in Indonesia and can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


  1. I found Mr. Sudaryono’s report on the Indonesian prison system very informative, and wonder if he could possibly give us an update since he first published this artice. Thank you.



  1. Indonesia: Prison Situation · Global Voices - [...] an absence of basic health and education services as among the main problems facing Indonesia's prisons. [...]

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